Dr. Jean Kilbourne’s documentary brings up many issues about how men and women’s attitudes about themselves and each other are affected by the images shown in advertising. Three critical points that Kilbourne raises are that people do not believe advertising affects them, that the advertisement aimed at women present an impossible ideal of female beauty, and that advertisement has a negative effect on how men view the female gender.
People are greatly mistaken in believing they are unaffected by advertisement. Perhaps this is because of innovations in today’s television that allow people to “skip” through the ads. As Kilbourne points out, ads are not only on television, but saturate the entire environment we live in. A simple walk down a city street shows how correct she is; ads cover everything, from billboards, busses, bus stops, on gasp pumps, trash cans, cars, the sides of buildings, and more. Whether or not this creates a “toxic cultural environment” as Kilbourne claims is debatable, but the proliferation of advertisement at least creates an environment in which people are continually encouraged to buy the latest and most fashionable products. The bad part about people believing that they are not affected by advertisement is that they have no understanding of how buying into advertisers’ campaigns is adversely affecting their pocketbooks.
Another critical point that Kilbourne raises is how ads aimed at women present an ideal of beauty that simply does not exist. A fascinating example was the time-lapse Dove commercial where beauticians transform an ordinary-looking woman by applying makeup and doing her hair, then graphic designers alter her further with Photoshop retouching so she appears “perfect.” This is terrible for women, because it makes them feel “ashamed and guilty” about how they look when they compare themselves with ads for products that promise results they cannot deliver. It is not only the ordinary women who feel guilt or shame by Photoshopped advertisements. Even beautiful women are not immune; for example, Dr. Kilbourne says that supermodel Cindy Crawford once said, “I wish I looked like Cindy Crawford.” The worst effect of this impossible standard of beauty is the epidemic of health problems like eating disorders, low self-esteem, and depression among women.
Kilbourne claims the types of images shown of men and women in advertising have negative effects on the way men view the female gender. Ads depict women as passive, silent, and in poses with men that almost look like a violent sexual attack is about to occur. Today’s ads, Kilbourne says, mirror and normalize a pornographic view of women as sexual objects. This is appalling for both genders because it encourages women to remain passive even in the face of some men’s sexist or even violent attitudes about women because the world of advertising depicts this as perfectly normal. As I viewed the film, I was horrified to see the way women are being depicted today in advertisement. I thought a lot more progress should have been made in the past few decades against sexism and stereotypes about women, and it was disheartening to see this isn’t true.
Many people will argue that ads do not make them feel lower self-esteem, commit acts of violence against women, and so forth because advertisement does not affect them personally. Perhaps this is true for many individuals, but rather than reject Kilbourne’s arguments altogether, it is important to view them by looking at society as a whole. The great value in the points she makes about things like people’s disbelief that ads affect them, the impossible standards of beauty for women, and the effect the images have on men towards women is that at least she makes us take a good look at how ads are deceptive and not prescriptions for the way life ought to be.