It is difficult to overstate the debt we owe Kilbourne for showing us the damage done by the advertising industry. Described by media researcher George Gerbner as a form of “mass vaccination” against advertisements, her films and books have made millions of people across the feel a little freer. With the characteristic wit and warmth that has earned her the reputation of being our ‘most compassionate educator’, Jean Kilbourne spoke to Ladybeard about the increasingly sophisticated ways in which adverts shape our thoughts and feelings, and the power we have to resist them.

#mycalvins SS16 campaign, Calvin Klein, 2016

#mycalvins SS16 campaign, Calvin Klein, 2016

You say that your mission is “to make unconscious messages conscious”. What do you mean by unconscious messages, and how do you make them conscious?

Unconscious or subconscious messages are ones that we don’t perceive on a conscious level, but that affect us deeply on a subconscious level. I’m not talking about subliminal content or hidden messages in advertising, I’m talking about the direct denial and suppression of information. For example, a tobacco ad that shows a healthy, happy, young couple carries the subconscious message: ‘Cigarettes aren’t bad for you’. Or, images of extremely thin women tell you, subconsciously: ‘This is the ideal body type, and if you don’t have it, then you’re not desirable’. Of course, it’s a body type that most women can never achieve.

By showing one ad after the other in my books and lectures, and talking about them overtly, I’m trying to bring these hidden messages out into the open. When I show a dozen ads of extraordinarily thin women, it’s hard to deny that they have an impact on us – especially in the absence of any other visible body type­­.

Most people say they don’t notice advertisements, but you say that’s part of the problem. Why?

We all say that we don’t pay attention to them or that we tune them out. And it’s true that most people don’t pay conscious attention to advertising. The mistake is thinking that this protects us. It’s to advertisers’ advantage that we think we don’t pay attention – this means we’re not on guard and they can get right beneath our radar, making us much easier to manipulate. Making ads ‘conscious’ reduces their power. I’m not suggesting that people should look at every single ad because that would be unbearable, but every now and then focus in on an ad and think, ‘What is this ad really selling? Where is it placed? Why is it there and who is it targeting?’

What is the relationship between the advertising industry and psychology?

The ad industry has used psychological research for a long time. A classic example is when the tobacco industry wanted women to smoke. Edward Bernays, Freud’s nephew and the father of public relations, hired women to dress like suffragists, march in the 1929 Easter Parade in New York, and light cigarettes as ‘torches of freedom’. Psychological research at the time indicated that if women could equate smoking with being like a man – and therefore gaining some of men’s power and freedom – they would want to smoke. It was very successful. The campaign was based on an understanding that women weren’t going to smoke if they were aware of the health consequences, unless they had a powerful, subconscious reason to do it.

Nowadays, advertisers spend a fortune on psychological research: they hire focus groups and psychologists to work out what affects people emotionally. I feel that this is unethical on the part of the psychologists. It’s not the same, but it is in some ways similar to the CIA employing psychologists to devise torture tactics. They shouldn’t do it, but they do, because there’s big money in it – huge!

You write that advertisers offer food as a way to “repress anger, resentment and hurt feelings” in Can’t Buy My Love. In Killing Us Softly 4 (2010), you show how advertisers encourage anxiety in people in order to sell anti-aging cream. How do ads play with our emotions?

I think that all ads sell more than their products, because all the products are basically the same: all the soft drinks are the same; all the cigarettes are the same. People can rarely pick out their own brand if they’re blindfolded. So what they’re selling us is an image and an emotion that is associated with that image; we believe that if we buy a certain product, we’ll not only look a certain way, we’ll also feel a certain way. Take some of the candy ads that target women at home who have small children. The ads tell them that this product is the ‘little break’ they need. It’s selling the idea of ‘a little bit of rest’ – a romantic of oasis in the middle of the day.

"When you dehumanise a person, violence is made inevitable, and advertising is a huge part of the dehumanisation of women and girls in our culture."

'Keep Her Where She Belongs', Weyenberg Massagic Footwear, 1972

'Keep Her Where She Belongs', Weyenberg Massagic Footwear, 1972

What tangible impact does advertising have on issues of gender equality?

In the late 60s, when I began looking at ads, I was part of the feminist movement and even some feminists would say, ‘We don’t have time to look at images of women in advertising, we’re concerned about violence against women’. My response was always that those two things are related. When you dehumanise a person, violence is made inevitable, and advertising is a huge part of the dehumanisation of women and girls in our culture. We are surrounded by ads that often quite literally turn women’s bodies into products; these are images of women dismembered, with their body parts used to sell everything and anything. Ads are often dismissed because they seem so trivial, but there’s a link between the representation of women in ads and the prevalence of gender-based violence. There’s also a link between ads and mental health problems. By showing only one body type, women are led to aspire to it and that, in turn, can lead to eating disorders. The American ideal of beauty has become so pervasive that 50 per cent of three to six year old girls worry about their weight. On the island of Fiji, the arrival of television heralded a boom in dieting among women and girls who before then hadn’t realised that there was something wrong with them.

Susie Orbach says in The Illusionist: “We’re losing bodies as fast as languages”. In Lebanon, which has the highest rates of plastic surgery in the world, one in three women go under the knife. Do you think the narrow prescription for female beauty is causing a crisis of identity among women?

Yes, in so many ways! The truth is women aren’t vain – women are judged in a way that men aren’t. A lot of the time that means they have to suppress their individuality in order to conform to the ‘ideal’. That can mean getting surgery or feeling like you have to change yourself to fit strict gendered codes. Look at the way female political candidates are scrutinised according to their appearance, whereas men just aren’t. Take Hillary Clinton: when she swept several primaries, most of the male commentators said she didn’t smile enough. Hillary Clinton, arguably one of the most powerful women in the world, swept the primaries and the big message was, ‘Smile, honey, smile!’

"Radical feminism... is not about being able to afford Jimmy Choo shoes. But advertisers don't like this kind, so they will co-opt it and try to sell 'girl power' off the back of a deodorant."

You argue that both the sexualisation of young girls and the obsession with thinness in advertisements were, initially, responses to the growing feminist movement. Rather than seeing these as conscious reactions, you write that they “[reflect] what the psychoanalyst Carl Jung referred to as ‘the collective unconscious’.” (Can’t Buy My Love). Could you expand on the idea that there was large-scale ‘unconscious’ response to feminism?

According to Jung, the “collective unconscious” incorporates “the Shadow” archetype, which is the idea that we all have unconscious beliefs and fears of which we’re not aware but that affect us deeply – and that drive a culture. Many cultures have a real terror  homosexuality, for example. It’s unconscious or it’s barely conscious, but it shows up in all kinds of ways.

The second wave of feminism in the 60s and 70s led to lots of changes and this generated an enormous amount of fear. There is this deep, mostly unconscious fear of women becoming too powerful – of female sexuality, of female energy, of so-called ‘female’ qualities – that is embedded in the ‘collective unconscious’.  Many women have this fear too – it’s bred into us from infancy.

So, because of this fear of female empowerment, it’s as if society said to feminists: ‘You can go to law school or business school, or out into the world, but two things will happen. The first is that we will literally replace you with little girls because you’re not going to be passive, the way “the feminine” is supposed to be, and therefore you’re not sexy and desirable to us. And the second is that you need to be very thin because at least that way you won’t signify power with your body’. That was the collective subconscious reaction.

In addition to this, on a more conscious level, there was an overt backlash against feminism, because feminists fight for social justice not just a place in the boardroom. If we really did have a huge movement for social justice, then a lot of people would make a lot less money and have a lot less power. There was a concerted and conscious effort to demonise feminists. That’s when ‘man-hating dykes’ emerged alongside feminist ridicule – the ‘can’t win’ situation whereby Gloria Steinem is too beautiful and Betty Friedan is too ugly. Everything was judged on looks and appearance. And that backlash really did work. It made a lot of women, young women in particular, scared to call themselves ‘feminists’ because it would result in contempt. Susan Faludi has this fabulous book called Backlash (1991), which is about exactly what happened and just how conscious it was – because that part of it was conscious.

'You've come a long way, baby', Virginia Slims, 1968

'You've come a long way, baby', Virginia Slims, 1968


You often reference the 1968 Virginia Slims cigarette ad that capitalises on the feminist movement by depicting the ‘newly liberated woman’ smoking, with the slogan ‘You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby’. Is advertising getting better now feminism is becoming mainstream again, or is the movement being co-opted again?

Capitalism will always co-opt any movement for real radical change. They’re doing it with the environmental movement and they certainly did it with feminism. I think that advertisers are fine with so-called ‘liberal feminism’, which is about more women becoming partners in law firms, for example. Radical feminism, however, is about social justice and is concerned with women of colour and the terrible wage gap and the total lack of – in my country at least – any family-friendly policies. It’s not about being able to afford Jimmy Choo shoes. But advertisers don’t like this kind, so they will co-opt it and try to sell ‘girl power’ off the back of a deodorant. It’s something that I think, as feminists, we need to watch out for. Co-optation can be seductive and it can be very slippery.

And how do we resist it?

Try to notice it when it’s there and call it what it is. This is not real feminism, this is co-optation of feminism: this is capitalism trying to make money from a movement for radical social change. And make it conscious. Always make it conscious.

Interview by Kitty Drake and Madeleine Dunnigan