Kilbourne Sees beyond Advertising Pitch

Article excerpt

Writer and documentary filmmaker Jean Kilbourne shows in a new book how the advertising industry has distorted Americans' perceptions of their lives and their relationships.

In her new book, Deadly Persuasion, Jean Kilbourne offers a stern assessment of the hold of advertising on the media and our lives. She describes the trivialization of traditional values that undergird our culture and complains that ads, on a daily basis, turn motherly love into a commercial for a certain kind of detergent or use family closeness and togetherness as a means to urge us to buy the right variety of breakfast cereal, guaranteed to bring the family together every morning in a loving and tender relationship.

The influence of advertising has shortened our attention spans ("I've certainly noticed this in myself. I used to be able to say something in 60 seconds that I've had to learn how to say in 20, or even 10," Kilbourne tells Insight.) Certainly advertising has made us intolerant of anything that doesn't produce quick results and promise immediate satisfaction, according to Kilbourne.

Kilbourne is a popular lecturer who has spoken at one-third of all the colleges and universities in the United States. She's also a documentary filmmaker and has served on the National Advisory Council on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Her new book is subtitled Why Women and Girls Must Fight the Addictive Power of Advertising, but it about how acts influence men as well as women. "In general, advertising harms us all," she claims.

Insight: You see advertising's influence as omnipresent?

Jean Kilbourne: When you think about it, the whole American ethic used to be an emphasis on work and on working hard when you worked. The emphasis was on delaying gratification and expecting a kind of transformation through hard work. Sometimes the emphasis was on a reward that would come in the next life, not in this one. Well, no more. Now the whole idea is that everything should be very easy and instantaneous and, if it isn't, well, then, move on --whether it's a marriage you're talking about or anything else in life.

We expect everything to be effortless. So what happens when a relationship hits rough times, which every relationship does, is that there's no model for getting through those rough times. The whole idea is, "Hey, if this marriage is not working or is making you unhappy, then move on to somebody else: You'll be better, you'll be happier."

Advertising creates dissatisfaction. One of the most pernicious things about it is not just that it makes us feel dissatisfied with this particular marriage, house or neighborhood, but particularly with relationships. Everyone else is having a better time! It must be time to move on.

Insight: You see the desire for the fast fix of every problem, promised by advertising, as related to addiction.

JK: The whole idea of the instant transformation very much ties in with addiction in that ads promise instant gratification as something you can buy; something you can take that will make you feel better instantly; something that will end boredom. Whatever it is, it will do the trick -- make you beautiful, make you think, save your marriage.

No wonder, then, if this is the message we all grow up with that kids turn to drugs. Aren't they constantly told that, "Hey, if there's something wrong, here's something you can take to make you feel better right away"?

Insight: You also believe that advertising contributes to cynicism among the young.

JK: I think that cynicism, particularly among young people, is sad and that it's a function not just of advertising but of a market-driven culture in which we're constantly encouraged to buy stuff that is never really going to do the trick we want it to do and so we're constantly disappointed.

And at some level, when the accumulated stuff doesn't do the trick, we feel there's something wrong with us. …