How savvy you are you about media?
By Melissa Pasanen
Jean Kilbourne will buy Seventeen magazine for her teen daughter on one condition. After she's read it, she has to critique it for her mother. "She's savvier than most of her peers but she loves to shop. That's OK, but I want her to understand that buying lots of stuff will not make her happy in life. Teens need to understand that they're for sale. They have increasing amounts of money to spend. Companies will do whatever it takes to convince them that their products are what they need to be happy, popular, and pretty."
For over twenty years, Kilbourne has been writing, lecturing, and making films about how advertising affects women and girls. Her first award-winning film Killing Us Softly: Advertising's Image of Women still has a great impact on audiences. This month, a new paperback edition of her book, Can't Buy My Love: How Advertising Changes the Way We Think hits the shelves.
Kilbourne helps girls and women understand how marketers play to our worst fears and secret wishes to get us to buy their products: things as obviously bad as cigarettes and alcohol, as well as seemingly harmless stuff like hair spray and lipstick. Even more important, says Kilbourne, is the general messages of those ads, which will affect how you feel about yourself even if you don't buy the products.
"Most ads tell girls they must fit a certain mold to be successful. You must be passive, thin, attractive, and sexy -- and own the latest stuff -- to be happy. It's too narrow and it does enormous harm to girls who are trying to figure out who they are and who they want to be."
You may think that ads are harmless and silly, and that you know what they're trying to get you to think or do. We picked seven ads from this summer's teen magazines and sent them to Jean Kilbourne for her interpretation. Take our quiz to see why each of these ads is harmful to girls.
Can YOU figure out why these ads are dangerous?
Well, they just want you to drink milk, right? So, what’s dangerous about that?Why it's dangerous: There's such pressure on little girls these days to grow up too fast and to dress and act sexily long before they know what that really means. It may seem cute, but it really is dangerous. At least a third of all girls are sexually abused during their childhood. Images like this suggest that they are asking for it.
It is kind of gross, but they're just selling candy. So, what’s dangerous about that?Why it’s dangerous: This ad is meant to be funny and it certainly is eye-catching. But in a world in which at least a third of all women will be the victims of violence at some point (and all of us fear it), this is no laughing matter.
I bet you wish you could have leather shorts like that. It's just clothes though, why is that dangerous? Why it’s dangerous: Does this mean that people won't notice us if we don't wear Wilson's leather? Time and again women and girls are told that all that's important about us is how we look and how we dress. What's really important is what we say and do and who we are.
It says that she's pulling her own strings, doesn't it? Why is that dangerous?Why it’s dangerous: Girls are often shown in ads as passive and submissive. Here the girl is a puppet -- and a half-dressed one at that. She also looks dazed and distant. Does it seem to you that she is pulling her own strings? Does she seem powerful to you?
Well, I am sometimes envious of the cheerleaders who always look great. But I don't hate them...well, only sometimes. Why is that dangerous?Why it’s dangerous: Perhaps the most important way we develop self-esteem and learn to love ourselves is through supportive friendships with other girls. Ads like this encourage us to hate each other and to compete for attention based on our looks.
It's kind of a weird picture, but it's just about shaving cream, right? Why is that dangerous?Why it’s dangerous: Women's bodies are often cut up in ads, with only one part pictured -- legs, breasts, buttocks. This portrays us as things rather than as unique and individual human beings. Imagine an ad turning a man's body into an ice cream cone!
This ad seems OK, like you can eat candy just like the guys. Isn't that encouraging equality? Why is that dangerous?Why it’s dangerous: This ad suggests that it isn't lady-like to have a hearty appetite, to love chocolate, to want to devour a candy bar. Of course, it is! We are females and whatever we do is by definition feminine. We have a right to eat heartily and enjoy food -- even junk food like this from time to time.
Did any of the Why it’s dangerous reasons surprise you? Kilbourne says one of the most powerful defenses we have against advertising is our own savvy. Next time you see an ad, try to read between the lines and beat them at their own game. You'll be a stronger, smarter, and healthier person for it.
Check out Jean Kilbourne's book, Can't Buy My Love.