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Advertising vs. Democracy: An Interview with Jean Kilbourne

There it is, on page 56 of Jean Kilbourne’s book Can’t Buy My Love: How Advertising Changes the Way We Think and Feel: the graphic that stopped me cold and made me realize just how prophetic was her work (originally published in hardcover in 1999 as Deadly Persuasion: Why Women and Girls Must Fight the Addictive Power of Advertising). It was an ad for a German marketing firm, contained within a decades-old issue of the trade journal Advertising Age. Beneath a corporate cornucopia of All-American legacy brands and products – Levi’s, Pepsi, Camel cigarettes, a Chiquita banana, a Big Mac, etc. – was the caption, “Let’s make America great again.”

With its depiction of American “greatness” as a collage of heavily advertised commodities, the ad would have seemed crass and stupid when it first appeared, but hardly remarkable. Now, of course, that cluster of words and pictures glitters with irony and implication. The caption of this homage to consumerism suggests a link between the slick hucksterism of the ad business and the fanatical nationalism of the MAGA cult. Is the connection real? If so, how does the Trump phenomenon – that cheesy mash-up of reality TV and Triumph of the Will – relate to the marketing and PR that saturate American culture and consciousness? Is Trump’s ugly but compelling political spectacle, which hogs the media foreground, an outgrowth of the inescapable, desensitizing background noise that is advertising?

It was these questions that led me to plunge into Kilbourne’s 21-year-old but still powerfully relevant book, and also to engage the author in conversation about the three intertwined topics – advertising, addiction and patriarchy – that she has spent much of her life observing and describing in her books, documentary films (including Killing Us Softly, released in 1979 and updated three times since) and provocative slide shows, presented to myriad universities and other groups over the past forty-some years. Following these thematic threads, she has produced a sharp and deep critique of advertising and its effect on our inner and outer worlds.

Her work ties together economics and psychology, showing how the corporate imperative to boost consumption by generating ever more specious and evanescent pseudo-needs corrupts and distorts society. Writing in 1999, 17 years before things hit bottom politically, Kilbourne noted that “Today, we export a popular culture that promotes escapism, consumerism, violence and greed” – all key aspects of “the world’s most powerful brand,” i.e., the United States of America. It is a brand that steamrolls everything in its path to produce a mass-merchandised McPlanet based upon the lowest common denominator. “On this deeper level,” observes Kilbourne, “rampant commercialism undermines our physical and psychological health, our environment, and our civic life and creates a toxic society. Advertising … promotes a dissociative state that exploits trauma and can lead to addiction. To add insult to injury, it then co-opts our own attempts at resistance and rebellion.”

Reading Kilbourne’s book, it becomes clear that advertising culture has at last produced a leader in its own image, a vain, self-absorbed and willfully ignorant cipher, incapable of altruism or empathy, obsessed to the point of madness with media attention and the trappings of celebrity. Trump’s hold over his base consists of advertising’s corrosive blend of false connection, false glamour and false consciousness.

How did we reach this point? For viewers conditioned by the manipulative narratives purveyed by advertisers, which are geared to our most selfish and primitive impulses, it’s no great leap into the dumbed-down, hyper-emotionalized world of reactionary pseudo-populist politics, as ground out 24/7 by Rupert Murdoch’s right-wing media machine. Murdoch’s truth-free Fox network is the ideal platform for the conscience- and character-free Donald Trump. Trump himself, whose insatiable appetites and pathological narcissism and aggression mask deep feelings of inadequacy and shame, is the perfect consumer and product of mass media and advertising. He understands and relates to his gullible and deluded base because he is, in terms of psychology if not lifestyle, very much one of them. They have all drunk of the same Kool-Aid, with the same damaging results.

Few people are equipped to speak more cogently about the influence of advertising culture on politics than Boston-based writer/filmmaker/lecturer/public intellectual Kilbourne, whom I talked to by phone in late summer. What follows is an edited version of our conversation.

HI: Is advertising and PR an expression of democracy, or its enemy? Is there a connection between advertising and our current slide toward fascism?

JK: Advertising is democracy’s enemy – that’s my immediate response. The political ad, which serves mainly to spread disinformation and evoke emotion, is definitely the enemy of rational politics and authentic democracy. Other countries don’t have two years of blitzkrieg political advertising leading up to national elections.

Donald Trump is a product of reality TV: he’s all brand. There’s no there there. It’s all about image – there’s nothing about him that could be sold in an honest way. The message he communicates about himself, like the idea that he’s a good businessman, is a mirage that has nothing to do with who he really is.

He’s not the first branded president – that would be Ronald Reagan, who first used “Make America Great Again” as his campaign slogan in 1980. Sunny, affable on the surface, but really all about dismantling everything, including deregulating children’s TV, which really opened the floodgates for marketers. I think Reagan was the first president to try to make people hate and turn against their own government. By turning everything over to marketers, Reagan helped create the kind of insecurity and fear we see so much of today. Advertising works by creating anxiety, and we have more advertising here than anywhere else. No wonder we’re so unhappy … if you really felt terrific about yourself, how much unnecessary stuff would you buy?

HI: Nobody would admit to taking advertising seriously; we tend to scoff at the notion that this thing that surrounds us affects our decisions and personalities. Is it possible to escape the effects of advertising?

JK: I don’t think so. Advertising, the propaganda of capitalism, is the invisible backdrop to our lives. As media scholar Sut Jhally puts it, to escape advertising’s influence would be to live outside one’s culture, which is impossible. It’s also basically impossible to do any decent research on the question of how exactly advertising affects us, because there’s no unaffected control group.

Advertisers themselves often deliberately trivialize what they do, playing on the general belief that ads “have no effect on me.” This is one way that they get beneath our radar. But it’s important to understand that ads aren’t just selling specific products. Advertising sells images and values and concepts of beauty and sexuality and success and normalcy. Whether or not the ad persuades you to buy a particular product, it’s still selling the larger concept of consumerism, the idea that whatever you have is never enough. The ad is selling anxiety – about appearance and acceptance for women, and about status and power for men.

The advertisers don’t want consumers who are media literate. They want people who feel superior to advertising, superior to its appeal. Many ads are aimed exactly at people who think they’re not vulnerable to advertising. What we need to be more aware of is the general message, the climate of belief that advertising propagates.

HI: How is the mental and social environment shaped by advertising? How does it affect our personalities, as well as our culture?

JK: Advertising creates ideals that are simultaneously unattainable and shallow. The ad-driven women’s magazines focus attention on issues like weight and beauty and fashion, reinforcing their advertisers’ messages. The effect is to push our culture more and more in a narcissistic direction, to make us ever more concerned with looks and money and power, as opposed to caring about such things as character and compassion, as well as community and civic engagement.

HI: Does advertising as a whole tend to push things in a conservative direction, and to make people less engaged and more antisocial?

JK: I think it does. Look at the question of public health, especially right now, during a pandemic. Advertising is all about the individual consumer, and will always take the implicit position that everything is up to the individual, and it’s the individual’s fault if things go wrong. Especially if the advertiser is peddling harmful or addictive products, it’s in its interest to attack the “nanny state” and to foster the belief that any effort to improve public health is the enemy of freedom. The fight may start with cigarettes or beer, but eventually it becomes about masks, which are now a big political issue. It’s incredible!

Just see what happened to [former New York City Mayor Michael] Bloomberg, when he tried to reduce soda pop serving size. The soft drink industry went berserk. And Bloomberg was just challenging the kind of excess that creates so much obesity and sickness.

These industries pick their fights well. They’re fine with warning labels, which they know have little effect on consumers and make the companies look good. What does “drink responsibly” mean on a beer can? Will it really deter heavy drinkers? What the companies fight against hardest are sales taxes and limits on advertising, because these things are proven to reduce consumption, and therefore profits.

HI: Does advertising follow social trends, or create them? Does it contribute to the long-term dumbing-down of society, or does it simply reflect it?

JK: Advertising always does more than reflect – it isn’t so much a mirror as a drill, in both senses of the word. Advertisers repeat messages over and over again, and they also probe into our minds and souls. Advertising research has become sophisticated beyond anything you can imagine. These days they use neurological research to measure an ad’s effect on our brains, whether we are conscious of this effect or not. The Internet lets them tailor ads to individuals. Facebook places users in different silos, allowing advertisers to target us even more narrowly, to get even deeper into our heads.

I remember watching Minority Report in 2002 and being struck by a very small scene. The film is set in the future. At one point, the character played by Tom Cruise is walking down the street and an ad in a little billboard on the sidewalk addresses him directly. I remember thinking that this will happen – and indeed it has, but via social media, which is much more powerful and effective than sidewalk billboards.

There’s a connection between advertising and larger cultural values, but ads only reflect the values that can translate into private profits. This is how advertising trivializes culture and co-opts movements for radical change. Is there a company that hasn’t put Black Lives Matter on its website? But unless there’s real change in the company, this is just “fauxvertising,” turning social progress into another way to sell products. The movement ends up getting subsumed into the notion that it’s all about the individual consumer expressing support by buying the right merchandise.

The topic of my doctoral dissertation was the many ways that advertisers co-opted and exploited the women’s movement. The most infamous example was the Virginia Slims slogan, “You’ve come a long way, baby,” which directly linked addiction and liberation. This actually began decades earlier when Edward Bernays, known as the father of public relations, hired young women to march with the suffragists and light cigarettes, calling them “torches of freedom.”

Advertising shapes culture by encouraging people to emulate celebrities and to think of themselves as brands. So-called “influencers” become famous for being famous, creating a snowball effect whereby attention and brand advertising become one and the same thing. There are all these celebrations of individual success stories, about immigrants and dropouts who become multimillionaires, entrepreneurs, always posing the same question: Why didn’t you? And always there’s the larger lesson that the point of life is to accumulate as much as possible.

One way advertising subtly shapes culture is by giving such a selective view of reality. “Minorities” are under-represented, and huge groups, such as the poor and the elderly – which in the world of advertising means over 50! – are almost never seen. The late media critic George Gerbner, who was one of my mentors, called this “symbolic annihilation.” Advertising focuses especially on people in their late teens and twenties because it’s then that brand loyalties form. Others become invisible. And this focus affects the editorial content of ad-supported media.

Also, the rapid rhythm of the advertisement becomes the pace of the mass media. Stories are reduced to images – often violent images – without background or nuance. Everything now is a sound-bite, and the sound-bites are constantly getting shorter.

People often ask me what has changed in the 50 years I’ve been doing this. One of the most significant changes is that advertising has become more powerful, more insidious, infiltrating every aspect of our culture and of ourselves. The line between advertising and content – or reality – gets more and more blurred. With Facebook, people see themselves in terms of brands, unlike 20 years ago. We become our own advertisers, Photoshopping our own images. I use Facebook sometimes, but I hate it – there’s something really awful about it. So much of social media and entertainment is product placement and sponsored content.

HI: What kind of personality does advertising cultivate? How would you describe the ideal consumer or recipient of advertising?

JK: The ideal ad watcher or reader is someone who’s anxious and feels incomplete. Addicts are great consumers because they feel empty and want to believe that something out there, something for sale, can fill them up. Perhaps the ideal consumer is someone suffering from bulimia, because this person will binge and gorge and then purge, thus needing to start the cycle all over again.

HI: Addiction is one of the major themes of your book. How does advertising help foster addiction?

JK: The selling of addictive products is of course a big part of what advertisers do. They study addiction very closely, and they know how addicts think – they literally know what lights up their brains.

Advertisers understand that it is often disconnection in childhood that primes people for addiction. For many traumatized people, the first time they drink or smoke or take drugs may be the very first time they feel okay. Soon they feel they are in a relationship with the alcohol or the cigarette. Addicts aren’t stupid – the stuff they’re taking really does work, at least at first. It numbs the pain, which makes them feel connected to the substance. Eventually the drug or substance turns on them and makes all the problems they’re fleeing from worse.

What struck me about the genius of advertisers is how they exploit themes of tremendous importance to addicts, such as their fear of loneliness and desire for freedom. This is precisely what addiction does to you – it seems to offer you what you need, while actually making you more dependent, more alone. The ads promise freedom and connection, in the form of products that entrap users and weaken relationships.

HI: In your book, you have a fascinating chapter about sex and advertising. To quote: “Although the sexual sell, overt and subliminal, is at a fever pitch in most advertising … [it] is a cold and oddly passionless sex that surrounds us. A sense of joy is also absent; the models generally look either hostile or bored. … We live in a culture that is sex-crazed and sex-saturated, but strangely unerotic.” You also mention how deeply and disturbingly narcissistic so many ads tend to be, featuring models who strike poses, caress themselves and gaze admiringly at themselves in mirrors. How are people affected by the objectified, inhuman, commodified sex portrayed in ads?

JK: Advertising turns women against their bodies, as sexuality becomes all about being a desirable object, without agency. Girls and young women are trapped in a double bind: They are encouraged at younger and younger ages to present themselves in overtly sexualized ways, but are still scorned if they’re perceived as aggressive or promiscuous. The double standard certainly still exists.

Today, most kids learn about sex through porn, which is horrible. Most porn has nothing to do with intimacy or even with relationships, and it certainly has nothing to do with what gives women pleasure. As viewers become desensitized, porn becomes harder, harsher, even less human. The poet Robert Hass describes pornography as “an absence of scale” – it’s sex without human context, nothing but body parts. Which is how advertising tends to treat sex and the human form, especially the female body.

Jean Kilbourne at a book signing.

HI: What do you think life would be like without advertising?

JK: It would be so radically different, it’s hard to imagine. What if women weren’t encouraged to be so concerned about these manufactured ideals of beauty, and didn’t feel this pressure to spend money on unnecessary products? What if men and women had authentic routes to power and self-esteem?

Without ads, this would be a more socially concerned world. In the past, the churches played a big cultural role, and at least purported to be about cultivating serious values (not always positively, to be sure). But even the church didn’t have the ubiquitous influence of advertising. Now you can’t escape advertising; it’s everywhere. And its effects are everywhere too, teaching all the wrong things, ignoring the important things. This brings us back to Trump, who actively wants his followers to be misinformed. The Trump game plan reflects the logic of advertising.

The media would be totally different too if they weren’t selling products and cutting to ads, dependent on the goodwill of the sponsors. You see a TV show, for instance, where the actresses are all strikingly thin, then find out it’s brought to you by Diet Coke. It goes beyond product placement. It’s about tailoring the content to support the advertising, presenting a fake world that produces fake consciousness.

HI: While we’re all affected by advertising, why do some people seem more sucked in than others by its libertarian ideology, this confusion of self-gratification with freedom?

JK: The United States doesn’t have a public education system that encourages critical thinking. People who haven’t been taught to think critically are more easily taken in by advertising and by political rhetoric, and by the awful combination of the two in the political ads that saturate our culture. Critical thinkers challenge authority and the powers that be.

Ours is the only developed nation in the world that doesn’t teach media literacy in its schools – and never have we needed media literate people more than now. I’ve been impressed by the fact that even a relatively brief lesson in media literacy can make a difference. I can’t count the number of people who have said to me that, after watching one of my films or even just a television appearance, they have never again looked at ads in the same way.

Some of us have been lucky – and privileged – and have had better education in school and/or at home. This can make us more resistant to the messages of advertising. But, as I’ve often said, no one is completely immune. After half a century of studying these issues, it’s an ongoing struggle even for me!

HI: What can we do as individuals and as a society to protect ourselves from the malign effects of advertising? Do you think it’s possible to undo some of the damage that has already occurred?

JK: In addition to lobbying for teaching media literacy in our schools, parents can educate their own children about these issues. There are many resources and organizations for parents listed on my website. Of course, this is easier for more privileged parents.

We can also talk with each other about the psychic pain that these images and stereotypes cause all of us, men as well as women. In my experience, this can help mitigate some of the damage too, just as consciousness-raising groups in the past have done.

On a broader level, we could enact stricter guidelines about what is acceptable in advertising, as many other countries do. We also need to address the problems associated with social media. However, it’s going to be difficult to achieve anything politically until we instigate serious campaign finance reform. The amount of money – especially dark money – that poisons our political system is unique in the world.

Finally, it’s important for each of us to take action in whatever way moves us to challenge not only the ads themselves, but also the sexist and racist and other dangerous attitudes that run so deep in our culture and that affect each one of us, whether we’re conscious of them or not. Real change depends upon an aware, active and educated public: people who think of themselves primarily as citizens, not as consumers.

HI: Allow me to end on a more personal note. You basically created not only your own lecturing career, but also your own field – the convergence of advertising, feminism and addiction – out of thin air. How did you do it, and why?

JK: I didn’t realize I was doing it at the time. I’ve always just followed the things that interested me, from the antiwar movement in the 1960s to the women’s movement a bit later, with this awareness of advertising slowly developing.

After graduating from college, I won an award that allowed me to work for the BBC in London. In my application essay, I wrote that I wanted to see what a TV network without commercials would be like. When I got back from Europe, I had a series of mindless jobs, including one placing ads in The Lancet, the British medical journal. There was a particularly offensive one about birth control pills, which I clipped and put on my refrigerator, because it said so much about attitudes toward women. I began to clip more ads, thinking how interesting it was that nobody took them seriously.

Soon thereafter I became a teacher, and I turned the ads into slides and talked about them with my students. Eventually, I took my talk on the road, lecturing for $50 to church and community groups. In 1977, I got an agent and went full-time. At that time, I focused just on images of women and children; since then my interests have broadened. It’s still a question of following what’s interesting and seeing where it leads.

Jean Kilbourne’s website is at www.jeankilbourne.com.

Hugh Iglarsh is a Chicago-based writer, editor, critic and satirist. He can be reached at hiiglarsh@hotmail.com.  

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