Jean Kilbourne Attacks Ads Exploiting The Female Body

On average, a person sees 3,000 advertisements a day. On Wednesday evening, Jean Kilbourne, a prominent voice on advertising and culture, asked students to think critically about the ads they see.

“Just as it’s difficult to be healthy in a toxic physical environment, so it’s difficult to be healthy and to raise healthy children in what I call a toxic culture environment,” Kilbourne said.

Kilbourne argued that today’s world is more concerned with profit than with health. She said that while many people say they tune out ads, the reality is that the mind consciously digests 8 percent of an ad, while the rest is subconsciously digested. This means that any given audience is very much affected by ads, whether conscious of it or not, she said.

Kilbourne, who spoke as part of Love Your Body Week, was named one of the top three most popular speakers on college campuses by The New York Times Magazine. She has studied the portrayal of women in advertising since the 1960s, making her one of the pioneers in this field. Recently, Kilbourne was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame for her work.


“The biggest thing that gives me hope is that I’m no longer alone. And that my radical ideas have become so mainstream.”


Advertisements that promote achieving an unachievable ideal body contribute  to depression, lower self-esteem, and eating disorders, Kilbourne said, and particularly in young women.

Cindy Crawford once said that she wished she could look like herself in ads. Kilbourne said this speaks to the unrealistic portrayal of women in advertising—made possible, in part, by the rise of Photoshop and the common practice of digitally manipulating photos.

In the movie Pretty Woman, Kilbourne said, Julia Roberts’ body was not her own. The movie poster and several of the nude scenes in the movie were shot using someone else’s body. This, she said, was a common practice in film.

The ideal body that ads portray is usually a thin, white woman with blonde hair and blue eyes, Kilbourne said. She noted that advertisers even lighten Beyonce’s skin.

Women are often made into products in ads, she said. This objectification suggests that women are weak and submissive and meant to be controlled by men. In advertisements, women are not people, Kilbourne said, but spectacles and the object of men’s desires.

In Kilbourne’s view, the sexualization of ads has become pornographic. She showed ads for credit card companies and fishing companies that featured scantily clad women.

What is more alarming, Kilbourne said, are the ads produced for younger female audiences. These ads convey unrealistic beauty standards to girls in their formative, adolescent years. She used an ad for a hair product as an example. It was comprised of a list of critiques a young girl may make about her breasts and concluded with, “But with Dep styling products, at least you can have your hair the way you want it.” This ad, Kilbourne said, was featured in a magazine for 12-year-old girls.

She said that through their objectification and hypersexualization of women, ads normalize violence and sexual abuse. In most product advertisements, the female is often pictured as frail and fragile, while the male is tough and powerful. While both of these images promote gender stereotypes, the positioning of the female is much more dangerous because she is victimized.

Another recent trend in advertising, Kilbourne said, is the “romantic stranger.” These ads often depict a woman walking alone in nature with a man lurking in the background.

“The idea is that a romance is about to take place,” Kilbourne said. “Now I think I speak for most women here when I say that when I’m outdoors alone and there’s a shadowy figure lurking in the background romance is the last thing on my mind. So what it really does is it eroticizes violence, which is the most dangerous thing you can do.”

Marketers are always finding new strategies, Kilbourne said. A shocking example that she learned of recently was that parents are auctioning off the rights to name their babies after prominent companies for advertising purposes.

“So we’ll have little Exxon going through life, permanently scarred because his parents are idiots,” she said.

Kilbourne stressed the need for a change in the cultural climate in order to make progressive steps for the representation of women in advertising. The first step is to understand that ads affect all of us in unhealthy ways. We then need to find ways to improve our cultural environment, Kilbourne said, as this is the only way to improve public health.

“The biggest thing that gives me hope is that I’m no longer alone,” Kilbourne said. “And that my radical ideas have become so mainstream. I feel hope because so many young people are involved these days, young men as well as young women.”

Featured Image by Julia Hopkins / Heights Staff

About Sophie Reardon 102 Articles
Sophie Reardon is the head news editor for The Heights. She is from Alexandria, VA and is majoring in history and communication. Her favorite news source other than The Heights is The Skimm.