Depictions, Perceptions, and Harm: An Interview with Media Critic Jean Kilbourne

Advertising and media images play an important and influential role in everyday life. American business continues to produce advertisements that violate, objectify, and sexualize women and girls, despite several academic studies showing the negative effects they have on young girls. The American Psychological Association Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls published a report showing that the sexualization of women and girls in advertising, merchandising, and media is linked to common mental health problems such as eating disorders, low self-esteem, and depression.

Gender stereotypes are also problematic and perpetuate gender inequality and violence. Based on the findings of a yearlong study, Britain’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) just released a report entitled “Depictions, Perceptions, and Harm,” which found that not enough was being done to address the potential harm created by sexualized, gender stereotypical ads. In response the ASA announced that new rules would be developed and enforced to ban all advertising that promotes gender stereotypes, sexual objectification of women, and/or unhealthy body images.

To learn more about the effects of gender stereotypical advertisements, advertisement bans in the United States, and the importance of media literacy, I had the pleasure of interviewing 2015 American Humanist Association Humanist Heroine awardee Jean Kilbourne. She’s the author of Can’t Buy My Love: How Advertising Changes the Way We Think and Feel and So Sexy So Soon: The New Sexualized Childhood and What Parents Can Do to Protect Their Kids, and the creator of the award-winning film series, Killing Us Softly: Advertising’s Image of Women. How do gender stereotypical advertisements affect young boys and girls?

Jean Kilbourne: I have been saying for decades that these ads are harmful. We do know that these ads have an impact on young people especially. They certainly affect the self-esteem of girls and they affect how boys think about girls; boys learn to sexualize and objectify girls at a very young age. A lot of the gender stereotypical ads, particularly in the days when I first started out, had to do with occupational roles for women. When women are shown in very limited roles then that influences girls’ choices. These ads also limit boys choices in the sense that they see certain professions as feminine and therefore don’t want to do them. Men feel reluctant to become nurses, for example,  because the profession is so heavily feminized. The Advertising Standards Authority, Britain’s advertising regulator, released a comprehensive report titled Depictions, Perceptions, and Harm.” Has the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) ever researched or published a report concerning the harm produced by certain types of advertising?

Kilbourne: Not to my knowledge. There was some pressure on them to do something regarding ads on alcohol and tobacco, but they’ve even shied away from that. I think the reason the Federal Trade Commission hasn’t published a report like this is because corporations have such enormous power over our government. Britain is very different from the US in terms of being less corporate friendly and there is more of an emphasis on the public good. The whole idea in this country that corporate free speech is equivalent to individual free speech really gets in the way of everything. Do you think the United States would ever pass a law, similar to Britain’s, that bans “advertising that promotes gender stereotypes or denigrates people who do not conform to them; sexually objectifies women; or promotes unhealthy body images?”

Kilbourne: No, I really don’t. If anything we are going in the opposite direction. Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, concluding that corporations are people and have corporate free speech, was an incredibly damaging decision and makes it virtually impossible to make any restrictions on advertising. I know there was an attempt in the past couple of years to introduce legislation, similar to the one that was passed in the UK, that would require models to have a certain Body Mass Index (BMI) and it went nowhere. The only way there would be effective legislation would be if a critical mass of people become involved in this issue and pressure the advertisers. Some journalists and companies in the UK are not happy with this new ban and see the new standards as an assault on freedom of speech. How can we inform them that it isn’t an assault on freedom of speech and instead will produce positive outcomes for people?

Kilbourne: It comes down to whose free speech and if you think corporations are people and have unlimited rights. Then I guess you could see it as an assault on free speech. However, I think this is an incredibly misguided way to look at corporations. Corporate free speech is different because of the billions of dollars at their command. Their free speech would drown out any individual’s free speech. It’s not a level playing field at all. We need to start by overturning the Citizens United decision and get rid of this absurd idea that corporations have the same rights as people. You’ve been studying the connection between advertising and public health issues for a long time. What recent trends have you seen? Is advertising that sexually objectifies and stereotypes women and girls on the decline?

Kilbourne: I actually think advertisements that sexually objectify and stereotype women are worse than ever and there are several reasons for this. One huge change in the world of advertising is the Internet and the fact that most young people these days are getting these messages online and through social media. This changes everything because it makes it possible for advertisers to target people much more individually because they get so much information from Facebook and other social media platforms. Photoshop has made things infinitely worse because it’s now possible to show people as completely flawless. The way that things have gotten better is that there is more attention to this issue now.

For more of Kilbourne’s commentary, read her 2015 Humanist article, “Jesus Is a Brand of Jeans.”