The Dangerous World of Advertising
Advertisements are everywhere; we see them so often that people rarely stop and really look at them. Upon closer examination, one might be shocked at the sheer amount of violent and provocative imagery that we are exposed to. Although we often don’t notice it on a conscious level, research shows that this imagery is taking a toll on society. Women are experiencing unprecedented levels of body dissatisfaction, often leading to depression and eating disorders. Constant exposure to degrading and thin-ideal advertising has cultivated a dangerous environment for modern women.
Have you ever walked by a Victoria’s Secret, looked at one of the perfect women pictured on the glossy posters and thought to yourself: Why don’t I look like that? Chances are, you have, and it has probably happened to you in a lot of other, more unexpected places, too. Whether we consciously notice them or not, these advertisements are everywhere and according to author Jean Kilbourne, they are taking a huge toll on women in our society. The exploitation of a woman’s insecurities has become a marketing tool, with advertising companies often only using women in ads who embody the thin ideal and satisfy a very narrow idea of beauty. This, paired with the use of violent imagery in advertisements and the media have cultivated a culture of
women who are filled with insecurities and fear. In Kilbourne’s article “’Two Ways A Woman Can Get Hurt’: Advertising and Violence” the author examines these advertisements and their unsettling effects on women and society as a whole. Kilbourne argues that advertisements containing violence toward women can result in the degradation of women involving real-life harassment and physical brutality, as well as the equally dangerous effects on women themselves, such as a lowered sense of self-worth or even self-harm.
Jean Kilbourne is the author of this article, which is actually an excerpt from her book: Deadly Persuasion: Why Women and Girls Must Fight the Addictive Power of Advertising. In the preface preceding the article, the textbook authors introduce her as “Jean Kilbourne, EdD, is an award winning author and educator who is best known for her lively campus lectures on the effects of media images on young people” (Greene and Lidinsky 489). Kilbourne is the paragon of trustworthy authors because not only is she extremely well-educated, she is also passionate about this subject. Her passion drove her to take action and this action has since accumulated into several films and books, as well as many articles over the years, and she is often invited to speak at universities about her findings. Clearly, Kilbourne is both passionate and educated, both in general, and in this specific field, and this alone could persuade readers to take her findings seriously.
Kilbourne’s motivation to write is one that many women can relate to. The feeling that you are being judged solely on how you look, rather than your intelligence, talent, or work is incredibly frustrating. When Kilbourne chose to write about this subject, this unfairness was impacting her life in a very negative way. Though Kilbourne was an intelligent and highly educated woman by this point in her career, Kilbourne found that she was “rewarded more for her looks than performance” and thus was having trouble building her career in the academic
community (490). When thinking about the life of an academic, it is easy to see why a person’s reputation would be very important. In order to be successful, an academic must be published and respected; it would be difficult to gain respect, let alone be published successfully if an academic were judged solely on the way they look. Not only would this be harrowing in a professional sense, it would also be difficult for a woman to value herself if society made her feel that her only value was her appearance. When the opportunity to merge her passionate interest in this subject and her professional life arose she took it and has since produced a sizeable body of work on this issue.
Kilbourne’s motivation for writing this article was to persuade advertising companies to change their ways. She argues throughout her essay that these issues of devaluing women are rooted in advertisements. It is clear that Kilbourne was trying to highlight the evil aspects of advertising in her writing because she consistently used upsetting examples and used advertisements that were clearly offensive and inappropriate. One such advertisement features a young girl in a perfume ad with the caption “Apply generously to your neck so he can smell the scent as you shake your head ‘no’,” providing such examples makes it clear that Kilbourne is disgusted by some of the advertisements in circulation (Kilbourne 494). Kilbourne also wrote this article in order to make people more aware of the images they are viewing so regularly. Even when media is not digested on a conscious level, it have been shown to affect us subconsciously and can influence our behavior and attitudes. Often when we view these advertisements, we do so in passing and do not question their contents, but Kilbourne asserts that “We believe we are not affected by these images but most of us experience visceral shock when we pay cautious attention to them” (497). By making her readers more aware of the dangerous and suggestive
nature of some advertisements, they will be less susceptible to internalizing them absent-mindedly and accepting their contents without scrutiny.
The audience Kilbourne was primarily trying to reach is women. While men need to be made aware of advertisements as well, women are the ones who Kilbourne intended to put on high alert. Throughout her writing, Kilbourne warns women against advertisements and men who have internalized some of the more violent advertisements, taking a stance that at some points in her writing, takes on an almost meandrous tone. In her essay, Kilbourne begins warning women against men in general, reminding readers that many women are compelled to carry pepper spray, whistles and Mace to protect themselves while men are not (500). These constant warnings against men are what make it so clear that Kilbourne’s intended audience is, in fact, women, not men. Kilbourne also uses the words “us” and “our” frequently when she talks about women, which gives the impression that Kilbourne is trying to create a feeling of unity among women reading the article. This along with Kilbourne’s warnings against men may give a female reader the sense that Kilbourne is trying to protect them, which makes her writing very persuasive.
Kilbourne makes it clear through her writing that she had experiences that relate to this topic. Throughout her essay, she portrays the struggles she has faced throughout her life, and these serve as proof to her experience in this area. When Kilbourne was first beginning her career, she found that her body and appearance were being valued more than the actual work she was doing (Greene and Lidinsky 489). In addition to this specific life experience, Kilbourne also gained a deep understanding of the objectification and treatment of women, simply by being a woman. While a man could write about this topic convincingly, women lend a unique, first-hand perspective to this topic. Similarly, they can relate more to the victims of objectification and
violence which makes the author more empathetic to the problem. Lastly, women can verify the effects of advertising by comparing them to their own experiences, which is something men could not do. Therefore, because she is a woman, and has experienced objectification first-hand Kilbourne could persuade her audience more effectively.
The combined use of Kilbourne’s personal story and the stories of others connects her to her audience through the use of pathos. One very persuasive aspect of Kilbourne’s article was her inclusion of real-life accounts of the abuse women have suffered. In a very powerful and convincing portion of Kilbourne’s essay, she described the traumatic events that young girls have gone through at the hands of young boys. She describes a situation in which a fifth-grade boy sexually assaulted one of his peers, in another example she describes a situation in which a high-schooler was dragged by her arms so her classmates could look up her skirt, and finally how a sixteen-year-old girl was digitally raped and committed suicide (507-508). These examples are clearly extremely upsetting, but they are not uncommon; almost everyone knows a woman who has suffered abuse whether it be verbal, physical or psychological. Hearing the stories of these young girls who have suffered persuades the audience to rally around Kilbourne’s point that these acts of violence are unacceptable. As the beginning of the article stated, Kilbourne has suffered some of the negative effects of being a woman, and while they may not seem as distressing as physical abuse, it still gives her perspective and first-hand experience which could persuade the reader to take her writing more seriously.
Throughout her article, Kilbourne’s tone, while powerful, persuasive, and assertive, was also sensitive and protective. Kilbourne made her sensitivity apparent to the audience when she stated “High school and junior high school have always been hell for those who were different in any way”, while this is a simple statement, it proved that Kilbourne is attuned to the struggles of
not only those she wrote about, but to those of the people reading her writing (507). Furthermore, her copious warnings and her concern for other women show the reader that Kilbourne wants to protect them from the dangers created by advertisements. All of this combined gives Kilbourne a strong persuasive ethos because she shows her audience that she understands the struggles they may have gone through and makes her good character traits more apparent.
This article was published in 1999; although this may seem like a long time ago, this article is still all too relevant. Most of the issues discussed in this article still have not been resolved; women are still objectified, still hurt physically and emotionally, advertisements are still using suggestive and violent imagery. This issue was not by any means new when this article was published, either. Women have historically been taken advantage of and their attempts at power squashed. When Kilbourne experienced objectification firsthand in 1960, and while women are somewhat better off now, Kilbourne’s writing can serve as a reminded to the reader that we still have a long way to go before women are no longer objectified (Greene and Lidinsky 490).
This article reveals something very upsetting about our culture: We value business and money more than human beings. Advertisers surely know that suggestive and violent advertisements are having negative effects on women, and people in general, but this system is lucrative, and it has withstood the test of time, so they have yet to stop. Kilbourne expresses this, writing “Sex in advertising is more often about disconnection and distance than connection and closeness. It is also more often about power than passion, about violence than violins” and while this may not sound dangerous, the fact that these tactics are so effective prove that we as a culture devalue other human lives and crave power (491). Revealing this throughout her writing was a persuasive strategy for Kilbourne because most readers can relate to being disgruntled by
the greed of big corporations and the feeling that money is seen as more important than people. Furthermore, it persuades the audience to take Kilbourne’s claim that advertisements are dangerous more seriously.
In summation, Kilbourne used a wide variety of persuasion tactics to get her audience to understand and agree with her views. Her overall goals of revealing the evil of advertising companies and making women aware of them were clear throughout her writing. Kilbourne built her argument using irrefutable proof in the form of real advertisements and real-life accounts of violence toward women. She engaged the reader using ethos, logos, and pathos, all of which made the reader more likely to agree with her ideas. Overall, Kilbourne carefully constructed a case against advertising companies, and any reader is likely to agree with her views after reading her article.
Researchers agree that there is a direct correlation between exposure to harmful advertisements and the development of eating disorders and low self-worth among teenage girls (Bessenoff; Blackhurst and Wilson; Brausch and Gutierrez; Morry and Staska; Ferguson et al.; Chabrol, Paxton and Rodgers). In our society, people are exposed to hundreds of advertisements a day and as our lives become more technology-based, that number will continue to grow. All of this leads one to wonder what effect the omnipresent world of advertising has on people today. Research on this topic focuses on how advertisements affect women; it suggests that repeated exposure to advertisements that promote an unrealistic body type can result in lowered self-esteem and a more negative body image, which can lead to eating disorders and depression in women and teenaged girls.
The publication of false perfection has a significant negative impact on women and society as a whole. The circulation and promotion of an unattainably thin “ideal” woman has
warped society’s perception of what is normal, what is healthy, and what is beautiful. Women
who read beauty magazines were found by Morry and Staska to internalize societal ideals more and consequently, were more prone to developing eating disorders and to self-objectify (275-276). The ideals that these women internalized were promoted, if not fabricated, by the media; researchers Chabrol, Paxton & Rodgers statement elaborates on this pressure Morry and Staska
eluded to by writing: “media influences are thought to set up unrealistic body-shape ideals that increase body dissatisfaction, desire to be thin and may induce disordered eating behaviors as a
|means of weight control” (393). In their study, the researchers found||that “girls with high levels|
|of depression were more strongly affected by media influences on appearance,” this means that|
|advertisements and the media’s unattainable thin ideal are influencing||those who are most|
|vulnerable (Chabol, Paxton & Rodgers 397).|
While research in this field has made it clear that advertisements can have a plethora of negative effects on young women, it also suggests that not everyone is susceptible. According to Bessenoff, people with high self-discrepancy1 are more likely to experience decreased mood, eating disorder symptoms, more body dissatisfaction and lower self-esteem when exposed to advertisements featuring thin models than someone with low self-discrepancy (240). This, according to Bessenoff’s ideas, is what separates the person who glances at an ad and goes on with their day from the person who looks at ads and experiences the aforementioned negative effects. Her experiment confirms the truth in this theory. In the experiment, 94 women with
1 Self-discrepancy is described as the difference between what a particular person perceives to be the ideal or social norm, and themselves.
either low or high self-discrepancy were shown advertisements and then asked to answer a series of questions (questions consisted of an Eating Disorder Inventory, Automatic Thoughts Questionnaire, and State Self-Esteem test). Half of the women were shown advertisements featuring women that embodied the thin ideal, the other half were shown neutral advertisements that contained no such women. Importantly, the group of women with low self-discrepancy had similar responses to the questionnaire regardless of the ads they were shown while women with high self-discrepancy responded with more depressive thoughts, lowered self-esteem, and felt more agitated and dejected after viewing the ads featuring the thin-ideal (243-247).
As well as the initial dissatisfaction and unhappiness that can come along with viewing these ads, body-dissatisfaction and other short-term effects can have long term ones. At any given time, approximately 56% of American women are dieting, and in a national survey 61% of female high school students reported having dieted to lose weight (Wilson and Blackhurst; Brausch and Gurierrez). While not all women are affected deeply by advertisements, this staggering statistic makes it clear that women are feeling body-dissatisfaction to a point where many of them are making an effort to alter themselves to meet the standard popularized by advertisements. Brausch and Gutierrez highlighted a potential avenue to danger when they wrote “adolescent females who actively diet or attempt to restrict their eating often experience ‘failure,’ which can lead or contribute to depressive symptoms” (59). This statement becomes especially chilling when one takes into account their findings that depression and disordered eating lead to increased suicidal ideation (66-67).
In summation, researchers have found that advertisements have dangerous negative effects on women. The effects are varied from person to person, but they can range anywhere from lowered self-esteem to depression or eventually even suicidal ideation. All of the
researchers found a strong and undeniable correlation between advertisements and the development of these negative effects in women (Bessenoff; Blackhurst and Wilson; Brausch and Gutierrez; Morry and Staska; Ferguson et al.; Chabrol, Paxton and Rodgers). Researchers found that the majority of women are unhappy with their bodies and when paired with the findings that advertisements promotion of the thin ideal contribute to body dissatisfaction, it becomes clear how widespread and nefarious the effects of advertising are. Many of the studies done in this field tend to focus on women rather than teenaged girls, therefore little is known about the effects of advertising on teens.
As early as first grade, I remember feeling dissatisfied with my body and the way that I looked. As it turns out, this is much more common than one might think and advertisements may be the primary culprit. For years, women in advertising have been objectified. Women are most commonly portrayed in advertising in violent and demeaning situations, often being dominated by men, or posing suggestively with heavily photo-shopped, falsely perfect bodies. Being surrounded by such negative imagery has caused many women to develop extremely low self-esteem and even eating disorders. One survey suggests that harmful imagery can be found outside of advertisements, namely in girls’ magazines. According to a Teen People survey, “Nearly 60% of the 13-to-18-year-old girls surveyed said comparing themselves to the models they see in the media, including magazines, makes them feel more insecure about their own bodies” (Walsh-Childers 63). These results mean that young girls see the falsely perfect women pictured in the media and begin to feel unhappy with their own bodies. This is problematic because when women compare their own bodies to an unattainably thin one, they are more likely to develop eating disorders as a means of decreasing their own weight. The negative
|consequences of media exposure are not always so obvious,||however. One study found that|
|exposure to television did not increase||body-dissatisfaction,||it did, however, increase||a sense of|
|inferiority||when comparing themselves||to other girls. “[N]either peers nor television||predicted|
|body dissatisfaction, although both predicted feelings||of inferiority response to other girls”|
|(Ferguson 478-479). Although||many women believe||they are unaffected by advertising,|
|advertisements have been shown to have several negative effects on women, often causing|
|women to compare themselves||to the women pictured in advertisements.|
|Upon hearing the term “ideal||body” most women imagine||the incredibly thin, but still|
|perfectly curved body that has been popularized by the media. This idea of perfection||is|
|dangerous||because it is entirely||unattainable for most women, but that doesn’t stop some women|
|from trying||to achieve it. The definition of the word “ideal”||is: “Existing only in idea; confined|
|to thought||or imagination; imaginary: opposed to real or actual” (OED). This definition makes it|
|clear the media should not be pressuring women to strive for an idealized figure because this|
|body type is not real or actual;||it is fabricated. Furthermore,||advertisements that put women’s|
bodies on display often portray them more as accessories than as people. When only beautiful and thin women are pictured, it gives the impression that beauty is the only thing women can contribute to the world. Objectification is defined as “the demotion or degrading of a person or class of people (esp. women) to the status of a mere object” and when women are constantly being portrayed in advertisements as perfect objects rather than actual people, it contributes to a growing problem of devaluing women in our society (OED). Objectification has grown dangerous for women in our society because if people continue to see women as objects, women are more likely to be abused both verbally and physically.
Advertisements are not only putting women at higher risk for abuse from external
sources, however, they are also putting women at higher risk for harming themselves. Eating disorders and depression among teenage girls are at an all-time high, and advertisements have been proven to be at least partially at fault for this. A study on the effects of thin-ideal advertisements by Tiggemann and McGill found that women experience immediate negative effects upon viewing advertisements, with participants reporting decreased mood and higher body dissatisfaction after viewing advertisements containing thin-idealized women (23). They said of their results “This is a disturbing finding in that we have demonstrated negative effects after only very brief exposure (11 images of thin idealized female bodies in about ten minutes), which is far less than what would be contained in a single issue of a fashion magazine” this suggests that a product specifically aimed at women, fashion magazines, are significantly contributing to a more negative body image and unhappiness in women (38). This is extremely telling of our culture because it reveals that we value monetary profit over others quality of life. Advertising is a lucrative business and for that reason we allow advertising companies to expose women to a constant barrage of unattainable body expectations despite the obvious risks and proven negative effects of doing so.
In today’s world, it is impossible to escape the thin-ideal, it is plastered across websites, billboards, store windows, television, and magazines. Unfortunately, young people have just as many opportunities to see and internalize these images as adults. Walsh-Childers findings show widespread the media’s influence is, and how all-consuming it can be, suggesting that the majority, 60%, of young girls are being made to feel insecure about their bodies because of media exposure (Walsh-Childers 63). In other words, our culture is cultivating yet another generation of insecure women. In a girl’s life, feeling insecure is often seen as a part of growing up, but there is no reason this should be so. If the media were to alter their output just slightly to
include a wider array of body types, it is entirely possible that young girls wouldn’t have the added pressure of having a perfectly stick-thin body in an already difficult time in their lives. They could focus on things that mattered, things that would better our society, but instead young girls, and all women, are occupied by trying to live up to a standard that no healthy person can meet.
Of course, not all adverse effects of the media are so easy to see. A force so powerful and
omnipresent as advertising is deeply ingrained in many aspects of our lives, and for that reason, it can be difficult to discern what is caused by advertisements and what isn’t. One study by Ferguson explored the effects of television exposure on the body dissatisfaction of young girls. Although they found that exposure to television did not directly raise the participant’s levels of body dissatisfaction, they did find that television exposure increased the participant’s feelings of inferiority toward their peers (Ferguson 478-479). This suggests that continuous exposure to the thin-ideal may have normalized that body type and made the participants view their peers as
fitting this standard more than themselves. Therefore, even though the girls did not experience immediate negative effects after exposure to the thin-ideal, they are likely to experience negative effects later when they inevitably compare themselves to their peers. Similarly, this study exemplifies how different avenues of media consumption can have varied effects. Had the participants been exposed to the thin-ideal through an advertisement or magazine, the results may have been different, but conversely, it also shows that no matter the format, negative effects will inevitably ensue.
The psychological effects of advertising are widely varied based on many factors including the viewer’s self-esteem, personality, and self-discrepancy. Rodgers, Chabrol, and Paxton found that it is those who have pre-existing conditions such as depression or eating
disorders that are most influenced by advertisements depicting the thin-ideal (393, 400). While there have been many theories and studies done on the psychological effects of advertising with just as varied results, researchers all agree on one thing: advertisements are harming women. The most common negative psychological effect of advertising is lowered self-esteem, but the effects can be as serious as developing depression, an eating disorder, or even suicidal ideation. It should be noted that some of the more serious effects of advertising often don’t affect the viewer immediately. More often, advertisements catalyze a downward spiral of sorts. First, the viewer of the advertisement will feel dissatisfaction with their bodies when comparing it to an ideal one pictured. According to Brausch and Gutierrez “Body dissatisfaction has been cited as one explanation for the increased rate of depression in adolescent females… these negative feelings could foster dieting and eating-related risk factors” therefore, body dissatisfaction is not a small issue, and it often leads to extremely serious, even dire, consequences (59). Often times, issues such as body dissatisfaction are written off and discounted as unimportant or just typical adolescent insecurity, but this issue almost always leads to action. In a national survey, 61% of high school females reported dieting to lose weight (Brausch and Gurierrez 59). Furthermore, depression and eating disorders are linked, with a high frequency of people who suffer from one suffering from the other as well. Therefore, as body dissatisfaction rates go up, eating disorder and depression rates will follow.
Apart from advertisements, there is a social pressure look good and conform to the thin ideal. Upon closer consideration, it becomes clear that advertisements may be a main culprit in cultivating this social pressure as well. A study by Tiggemann, Marika, and Mcgill studied the effects of body-focused advertisements versus product-focused advertisements. Their findings indicated that body-focused images were more likely to elicit social comparison from the women
than product images (Tiggemann, et al. 39). Another study suggests that there are two ideals a
woman is exposed to on a regular basis “the body-perfect ideal, which is ultra-thin for women,
and the material good life, emphasizing an affluent lifestyle, money, and expensive material
goods” continuous exposure and normalization of both of these ideals have the potential to make
women feel socially inferior (Ashikali and Dittmar 514-515). Being surrounded by these ideals
constantly, it is easy for one’s perspective and ideas about what is normal to be skewed.
Gender also plays an important role in how viewers are affected by advertisements. For women, advertisements featuring women who have been objectified by being put in suggestive and vulnerable poses or being dominated by men feeds a climate of quiet fear all women experience. “Turning a human being into a thing, an object, is almost always the first step toward justifying violence against that person” this violence is not limited to external sources; the objectification of women also makes self-objectification, and consequently self-harm more likely (Kilbourne 598). Researchers Sabiston and Chandler explain self-objectification theory, stating “[The] theory suggests that the constant focus on women’s bodies and objectification of them leads women to monitor their outward appearance and body shape, to be concerned with others’ perceptions of their appearance, and to be more preoccupied with what the body looks like rather than what it can do” this theory exemplifies how widespread the issue of objectification is because women themselves have begun to see themselves as only their appearance (515). Overall, objectification is the most serious problem to arise from advertisements, as it has led to the harming of women by themselves and others.
Although we have made many strides as a culture in the way women are viewed and treated, the way women are portrayed in the media remains archaic. Women are portrayed as objects, their images pinched and stretched and altered until they no longer resemble real people.
This remains problematic for women in our culture because viewing these exaggerated, falsely perfect women leads to body dissatisfaction, which often results in even more serious issues like depression and eating disorders. These adverse effects are not limited to a specific age group of women either, teenagers and even children are just as susceptible to their effects. Furthermore, the objectification of women in advertisements is hindering them in real life situations. Despite this, thin-ideal and violent advertisements are not going away, in fact, this problem has only intensified in recent years. That is precisely why now more than ever, we need to make a change. In a world where women were free of unrealistic expectations and negative body image, think of all we could accomplish. After all, do you think a woman has ever looked at the starving, stick – thin models she is supposed to want to be staring back at her from a glossy page and felt powerful?
In summation, women have been made to feel inadequate for too long. Advertisers have built an
empire born from insecurities and fear and painted it with images of falsely perfect women.
Although many strides have been made toward a better world for women, advertisements are
hindering and undoing all the careful progress we have made. If this toxic outpouring of harmful
images could be stopped, or even just slowed, it would mean a safer, more accepting
environment for women and young girls to live in. It is up to us now, the consumers, to make this
happen. It is imperative that advertisers be made aware of the harm they are causing, and how
much safer our society could become if changes were made.
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