Mad men can't buy her love; author speaks on ad addiction


The average person is exposed to over 3,000 ads every day. Yet many people think advertisements have no effect on them.

"I can't tell you how many times I get told by people that ads don't affect them ... most of the time by somebody wearing an Abercrombie T-shirt," said Dr. Jean Kilbourne as she spoke to a crowd of mostly college students who laughed knowingly. Kilbourne is an internationally recognized lecturer, filmmaker and author known for her innovative work examining and critiquing advertisements for their portrayal of women. Kilbourne is best known for her films "Killing Us Softly" and her book "Can't Buy Me Love."

Kilbourne gave a presentation about the influence of advertising on addiction on Nov. 7 in the Kirby Ballroom at University of Minnesota Duluth. She was invited to speak by the Miller-Dwan Foundation and Amberwing. Her talk was titled, "Deadly Persuasion -- How Advertising Affects Our Kids."

"These ads sell a great deal more than products," said Joanna Carlson, spokeswoman for the Miller-Dwan Foundation. "They sell values, images and concepts of success and worth, love and sexuality, popularity and normalcy. Sometimes they sell addictions."

"At Amberwing, we see kids whose values and ideas are shaped and impacted by advertising," said Traci Marciniak, the president of the Miller-Dwan Foundation in her introductory remarks. Amberwing is a wellness center created by the Miller-Dwan Foundation which provides mental health and substance abuse rehabilitation services for children, adolescents, young adults and their families.

Kilbourne spoke about how advertising can influence addiction in youth by focusing on the marketing of alcohol and tobacco products and the emphasis on physical perfection for women and girls in ads.

"They aren't just selling a product, they are selling an image," said Kilbourne as she began her presentation. She projected a slide of a Bacardi rum advertisement that featured an ice-cold bottle with little else in the background. "Take this ad, for example. It doesn't really give us any information besides the brand name. But it does create a powerful image that sticks with the brain."

Kilbourne says that "only 8 percent of an ad's message is received by the conscious mind." The rest is "worked and reworked" by our subconscious mind.

"The average age to start smoking is 13," said Kilbourne, as she projected an ad for Marlboro, a cigarette company that she says spends $15 billion on advertising. Thirteen is in fact the age when Kilbourne herself started smoking. To quit, she says, was "one of the hardest things."

"Every time an addict quits, someone loses money," said Kilbourne.

Kilbourne said that cigarette companies need about 3,000 children to begin smoking every year to replace the smokers who die.

"We are seeing more girls smoking than boys, for the first time ever," stated Kilbourne, as she showed a cigarette ad targeted at women. It featured a young woman with a cigarette in her hand and read "If only calories didn't count." According to Kilbourne, the implication was that the girl couldn't eat and stay thin, but she could smoke a calorie-free cigarette.

Kilbourne believes that part of the reason we see more girl smokers is because of the impossible standards of physical beauty women are held up to due to the fabricated images of women in advertising.

"Advertising tells women that what's most important is how they look. Ads surround us with the image of ideal female beauty. But this flawlessness cannot be achieved. It's a look that's been constructed by airbrushing, cosmetics and computer retouching," said Kilbourne.

To illustrate this, Kilbourne showed a recent Dove commercial called "Evolution" which shows the lengthy process of adding makeup and digitally altering a model for a billboard. The ad ends with the words: "No

wonder our perception of beauty is distorted."

Speaking of distortion, Kilbourne also showed a photo of a Ralph Lauren model whose waist was slimmed down so much that her head was wider than her hipbone, which Kilbourne says is a physical impossibility.

She has explored this topic further in her film "Killing Us Softly," which many in the audience were familiar with. When asked how many had

seen it, about half the audience raised their hands.

Mel Alvar was among those who raised their hands. Alvar is a UMD

student who also works for UMD's Health Services as a peer health educator. She attended the session to see Kilbourne.

"I liked the how similar her presentation was to 'Killing Us Softly,' which I've seen a million times," said Alvar.

"She's one of my idols," said Kathryn Schumacher of Kilbourne.

Schumacher is a student from St. Scholastica who attended the session with two girls from Denfeld High school as a part of the Girls Restorative Program. The Girls Restorative Program is a part of the Men as Peacemakers organization and is a program which promotes education, leadership and togetherness for high school girls.

Schumacher said she enjoyed the session and thought it was "really awesome that she had so much to say about advertising being so ingrained in our culture."

"Even when you're walking through the mall and you see all these ads with unrealistic examples of beauty ... and we don't even notice it, but now I know this is why I feel so self-conscious," said Schumacher.

Schumacher wasn't the only one who found the effects of advertising interesting. Omar Banat, a fourth-year journalism student at UMD, said "The point that's sticking for me is the idea that companies are viewing customers as products rather than the other way around. They're trying to buy us rather than the other way around."

The session with Kilbourne was also sponsored by Enbridge, UMD's Women's Resource and Action Center and UMD's Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies and Amberwing.