To mark International Women's Day, we're sharing an interview with Jean Kilbourne about how adverts shape the way we see ourselves, and our power to resist them
Jean Kilbourne was the first person to study the portrayal of women in advertising. She started collecting ads in the late 1960s, tearing them out of magazines and sticking them around her house. Struck by how they repeatedly objectified and dismembered the female body, she became convinced that there was a relationship between advertising and endemic health and social problems, such as domestic violence, eating disorders, and addiction. She put together a slideshow of images and began to tour the United States with her theory. We see over 3,000 adverts every day and yet only around 8 per cent of an ad’s message is received by the conscious mind: Kilbourne’s presentations aim to make these “unconscious messages conscious”. By showing her audiences one advertisement after another, she systematically peels away the gloss and glamour to reveal the harmful messages beneath. The lectures became the basis for her award-winning film Killing Us Softly (1979), which has since been updated three times, charting the representation of women in advertising across four decades. According to Kilbourne, the ads and their consequences are only getting worse: as the female body is reduced from thin, to nothing, ‘0’, to double nothing, ‘00’, rates of mental ill health and gender-based violence are rising. In her critically acclaimed book, Can’t Buy My Love (2000), she analyses the way in which advertising creates and feeds an addictive mentality; in So Sexy So Soon (2009), co-authored with Diane E. Levin, she exposes the disturbing implications of the industry’s sexualisation of young girls. This, she appears alongside Susie Orbach and others in The Illusionists, which examines the terrifying, global spread of these Western feminine ideals and the white-washed, homogenised world they leave in their wake.