All you need to be happy, sexy, and thin


Even though women instinctively know they will feel worse about their appearance after reading fashion magazines, what keeps us reaching for those glossy pages at the grocery check-out? Author and lecturer Jean Kilbourne thinks it's the power of advertising.

"The problem with advertising," writes Kilbourne, "isn't that it creates artificial longings and needs, but that it exploits our very real and human desires."

Drawing on recent psychological theory, Kilbourne outlines four desires that advertisers portray in order to get the attention of potential customers: vitality, empowerment, knowledge of self and others, and connection.

Kilbourne claims that advertising corrupts relationships and then offers people products as substitutes for the intimate human connection they crave. As a result, the most significant relationships are with the products people buy.

"Advertising constantly ... exhorts us to be in a never-ending state of excitement, never to tolerate boredom or disappointment, to focus on ourselves, never to delay gratification, to believe that passionate sex is more important than anything else in life, and always to trade in old things for new."

Kilbourne's research points out that women - and girls in particular - need to be mindful of the influential power of advertising. Women's bodies, oftentimes portrayed as headless torsos, have long been used to sell everything from toothbrushes to chain saws. In addition, endless glossy spreads in women's magazines feature beauty products, fashion, and diets to keep women focused on exterior "problems." However, the products themselves claim to satisfy internal needs for connection, self-worth, and love.

While magazine headlines such as "85 Ways to Lose Weight" alongside "10 Minute Ice Cream Pie" may seem harmless, the compulsive reaction to buy products, or consume food, to fill emotional emptiness can lead to unhealthy habits.

Since the late 1970s, Kilbourne has been among the first to analyze the cultural myths about women and men that advertising perpetuates. As a former model and someone who once abused drugs and alcohol, she speaks from experience.

Beer and cigarette ads promise to satisfy needs for connection and self-empowerment with addictive drugs. Kilbourne recognizes that advertising itself doesn't cause addiction, but she maintains that persuasive ads contribute to a cycle of insatiable needs by perpetuating the myth that products fill a spiritual void. Throughout the book, photographs of particularly egregious ads drive her point home.

Although girls and women are the focus of her research, Kilbourne also touches on the culture of cynicism promoted through advertising that affects women and men.

Chapter topics include the corruption of relationships ("Bath tissue is like marriage"); fascination with cars ("Can an engine pump the values in your heart?"); and the feeling of disconnection that can lead to addictions ("You talkin' to me?").

Her numerous examples of ads that exploit or manipulate customers into thinking that products are something that they are not, sometimes makes for redundant reading. However, as Kilbourne points out, the average American is exposed to more than 3,000 marketing messages every day, many without realizing it. Against that avalanche, she doesn't analyze even a day's worth of ads.

Although academic, Kilbourne's book contains insight into advertising that will surprise those who have never examined its influence. For those who have, "Deadly Persuasions" serves as an important reminder that advertising remains a manipulative force in our daily routine.

*Kendra Nordin is on the Monitor staff.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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