Deadly Persuasion; The Addictive Power of Advertising

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The average American views three thousand ads in one day. Yet remarkably, most of us believe we are not influenced by advertising. In this lively and shocking expose, Jean Kilbourne reveals how deeply advertisers insinuate themselves into our daily lives. Advertisers do far more than influence our taste - they manipulate our desires so that their products will become our closest friends.

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The average American views three thousand ads in one day. Yet remarkably, most of us believe we are not influenced by advertising. In this lively and shocking expose, Jean Kilbourne reveals how deeply advertisers insinuate themselves into our daily lives. Advertisers do far more than influence our taste - they manipulate our desires so that their products will become our closest friends.

Read More Show Less

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
No longer confined to 30-second TV spots and newspaper and magazine columns, advertisements now find their way into movie plots (as product placements) and high school lessons, onto municipal buses, sports scoreboards, clothing and even food. Kilbourne, best known for her documentary film work (Killing Us Softly; Pack of Lies), has extended her anti-advertising crusade into print in a profound work that is required reading for informed consumers. She adeptly illustrates that advertising encourages buyers to lavish affection on products rather than on other people, and pitches these trivialized relationships most fervently to girls and women. Worse, according to the author, addictive products are touted as outlets of expression and rebellion and are advertised to an increasingly younger demographic. She writes, "Advertising doesn't cause addictions. But... [it] contributes mightily to the climate of denial in which relationships flounder and addictions flourish." Drawing on a combination of psychology, feminist critique and media studies, Kilbourne cites numerous ads that downplay romantic commitment or healthy self-esteem in order to sell these qualities through products like backpacks or diet pills. She exposes the way advertisers take advantage of women's and girls' stifled feelings of rage and loss of control, and cause gender stereotypes to flourish. Likely to spark intense controversy, Kilbourne's passionate treatise is a wake-up call about the damaging effects of advertising in our media-saturated culture. (Nov.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Kilbourne is mad as hell and is not going to take it anymore. In this all-out assault on the advertising industry, she expands on the landmark studies of Wilson Key to accuse advertisers of deliberately creating an atmosphere that encourages addictive behavior. Through an adolescent world view emphasizing narcissism, immediate gratification, and rebellion, they target the most vulnerable, and highly desirable, marketing demographic--young women aged 15 to 30. In graphic examples, Kilbourne, a visiting scholar at Wellesley College and a popular national lecturer, illustrates the ways they concoct a virtual reality in which addictive behavior, especially that connected with alcohol, tobacco, sex, and food, is presented not only as normal but also as the solution to any problem. Women whose self-image is shaped by ads depicting them as childlike and ineffectual are particularly susceptible to the premise that the purchase and use of certain products will make their social, emotional, and financial difficulties disappear. In this regard, the chapters on alcohol and sexual violence are both powerful and persuasive. Although strident at times, this is an important work. Highly recommended for public and academic libraries.--Rose M. Cichy, Osterhout Free Lib., Wilkes-Barre, PA Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Marie Shear
Inspired by a passionate conviction that advertising threatens the mental and physical health of women and girls, Deadly Persuasion is a strong, non-pharmaceutical remedy for media illiteracy, safe and effective for the general public students of all ages. Elementary-school pupils too young to read it might conduct media-monitoring projects that their teachers base upon the book. In fact, Kilbourne thinks media-literacy education should start in kindergarten. That's none too soon: advertisers live by her witty aphorism, "Life begins at consumption."
The Women's Review of Books
Kendra Nordin
Kilbourne's book contains insight into advertising that will curprise those whto 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.
Christian Science Monitor
Kirkus Reviews
A powerful, sobering call to arms by the documentarian (Killing Us Softly, Slim Hopes, Pack of Lies), lecturer, and scholar. Jean Kilbourne has an axe to grind, as she is refreshingly honest about admitting right up front. She is appalled by the power that various industries exert over the media, and has spent the past 30 years researching the pervasive and insidious nature of advertising in society. Here she examines the influence that advertising has on consumers, focusing particularly on how it contributes to the problems that girls and women already face in terms of economics, violence, and physical and emotional health. Kilbourne does not naively attribute any of the problems that women face directly to advertising; indeed she frequently states that no one particular advertisement or campaign can be blamed for anything. But her incisive interpretation of research and statistics points out with precision the advantage advertising companies take of the public's tendencies toward addiction, and, even more importantly, the ways corporations use their economic hold over the media to withhold information from their customers. Kilbourne is specific and often humorous as she displays and deconstructs various ad campaigns and their methods of co-opting the human desire for connection; referring to a BMW ad that claims, "If you do shiver, it'll be from excitement," she asks, "Are we supposed literally to be turned on by the experience of driving these cars (or simply being inside them)? Is it progress that both men and women can now experience the thrill of having sex with their cars? Will people go parking by themselves before long?" One of the most egregious results of the ever-presentsales pitch, explains Kilbourne, is the fact that those who buy whatever is being sold are often trying to fill an internal emptiness—and inevitably failing. A broad and provocative look at the ads that bombard us, and what they do to our culture. (100 b&w illus.) (Radio satellite tour)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780684865997
  • Publisher: Free Press
  • Publication date: 10/5/1999
  • Pages: 366
  • Product dimensions: 6.48 (w) x 9.57 (h) x 1.03 (d)

First Chapter

Chapter 5: "Please, Please, You're Driving Me Wild" While men are encouraged to fall in love with their cars, women are more often invited to have a romance, indeed an erotic experience, with something even closer to home, something that truly does pump the valves of our hearts -- the food we eat. And the consequences become even more severe as we enter into the territory of compulsivity and addiction.

Women have always been closely linked with food -- with its gathering, preparation, and serving. We're called peaches, tomatoes, pieces of meat, dishes...honey, sugar, sweetie. Beautiful women, especially those who accompany playboys and older men, are "arm candy." And increasingly, as with ads for cars and other products, the thing becomes the lover, as in the ad in a Thai publication featuring two scoops of ice cream as a woman's breasts.

Food is intertwined with love throughout our culture. We give chocolates on Valentine's Day. We say that we are "starved for affection." We think of certain foods, such as custard, ice cream, and macaroni and cheese, as "comfort foods." In infancy and early childhood, food was a major way we were connected to someone else, the most important way that we were nurtured. Many of us had caregivers who used food as a reward or a punishment. Others suffered terrible trauma in childhood and learned to use food for solace and escape. No wonder feeding ourselves can sometimes be an attempt to re-create some sense of wholeness and connection. No wonder it is so easy to confuse food and love.

Food has long been advertised as a way for women both to demonstrate our love and to insure its requital. Countless television commercials feature a woman trying to get her husband and children to love her or just to pay attention to her via the cakes and breakfast cereals and muffins she serves them. "Bake a Comstock pie," one ad says, "they'll love you for it." Instant oatmeal "warms your heart and soul," a print ad tells us, "like a hug that lasts all day." "Awesome Mom" is the tagline for an ad featuring a little boy smiling widely, obviously delighted to find prepackaged junk food in his lunchbox. "Skip the Zip on my little girl's sandwich and give up one of her bear hugs? Not in her lifetime," says a mother hugging her daughter in a mayonnaise ad. The implication, of course, is that the child won't hug her mother unless she gets the right kind of mayonnaise on her sandwich. As always, the heartfelt connection, the warm relationship is simply a device to sell something -- and even our children's love for us is contingent upon our buying the right product.

Very few ads feature women being given food by men or even by other women. More often, when a woman is being fed, she is feeding herself. A television commercial for candy features a series of vignettes in which what a woman does for others (such as making a costume for her daughter) is ignored and unappreciated. At the end of each vignette, the woman pops a piece of candy in her mouth and says, "I thank me very much with Andy's Candies." Another commercial featuring a woman feeding herself candy has the tagline "From you to you."

In many of these commercials, the woman is not only rewarding herself, she also is coping with her disappointment at being unappreciated. Advertisers often offer food as a way to repress anger, resentment, and hurt feelings. "What to do for dinner after a long day of eating your words and swallowing your pride" says an ad for frozen chicken. "Got a big mouth?" asks an ad for caramel candies, "Put a soft chewy in it." "Not satisfied with your payday?" asks an ad for Payday candy bars. "Try ours." And an ice cream ad featuring a young woman walking her dog says, "He never called. So Ben and I went out for a pint of Frusen Glädjé. Ben's better-looking anyway." Another ad features the empty foil wrappings of twelve pieces of candy with statements beneath them, from "I didn't sleep late" to "I didn't call him" to "I didn't buy it," "I didn't put off the laundry," "I didn't get upset" to "I didn't skip gym," ending with "He called."

It is interesting that the ad includes so many ways that people escape from difficulties with relationships (shopping, sleeping, watching television) and yet encourages one of the most common escape routes of all, overeating. I am especially struck by "I didn't get upset." Sometimes getting upset is the healthiest and most appropriate response. Certainly it is better to get upset than to numb one's feelings with an overdose of chocolate. Better for us, that is -- not better for candy manufacturers. No wonder they run ads like the one that says, "Whatever mood you're in, you're always in the mood for chocolate."

A 1995 Häagen-Dazs ad features a large spoon dipping into a pint of ice cream and the copy, "Your fiance agreed to have a big wedding. Have a Häagen-Dazs. He wants to have it in a Sports Bar. Have some more." Again the message to women is clear. When your man upsets you, don't make trouble, don't argue, just eat something -- or have a drink or a tranquilizer or a cigarette. "At least one thing in your day will go smoothly," says an ad for a candy bar. Sadly, many women do eat compulsively in an attempt to assuage loneliness and disappointment within relationships (from the past as well as in the present). Family therapist Jill Harkaway says, "When you are lonely, you can't count on people, but you can count on your refrigerator, or the nearby 7-Eleven not to let you down." Of course, this fails to address the real problems, thus insuring continued feelings of isolation and alienation, while breeding eating disorders.

Advertisers spend a lot of money on psychological research. They know that many people, especially women, use food to help us deal with loneliness and disappointment and also as a way to connect. The ads play on this. "You know that empty feeling you have when you're watching what you eat?" asks a four-page ad featuring an empty dessert bowl on the first page. "Start filling up," the ad continues on the next two pages, which picture a variety of sugar-free puddings. A 1999 Burger King commercial features flashes of food and the Burger King logo while Leslie Gore's old hit "It's My Party" plays in the background -- "it's my party and I'll cry if I want to." The final caption reads "Stop crying and start eating" and the burger disappears in three large bites.

Advertisers especially offer food as a way to relate romantically and sexually. A television commercial for a pasta sauce features a couple eating and gazing intensely at each other while "I don't know why I love you like I do" plays in the background. "In the mood for something really intense?" asks the sexy female voiceover. The couple feed each other while the words "Unexpected...Intense...Bold" appear onscreen. In the last shot, the woman is suggestively licking the man's finger while the voiceover says, "You're gonna love it." And an ad for a frozen mousse dessert features Dr. Ruth Westheimer, America's sexual guru, digging in and advising the reader, "Achieving mutual satisfaction is easy. Just share some Mousse du Jour."

One of my favorite ads of all time ran in the early 1980s in many women's magazines. It showed a closeup of a woman's face. She was smiling very seductively and the copy said, "Whatever you're giving him tonight, he'll enjoy it more with rice." As I said to my audiences at the time, "I don't think I'm particularly naive, but I haven't figured out what the hell you do with rice." "Maybe it's wild rice," someone suggested. Another woman called out, "Let's just hope it isn't Minute Rice." The 1990s version of using sex to sell rice is much more explicit, of course: an ad for Uncle Ben's rice shows a woman feeding a man a forkful of rice by candlelight. The copy says, "Passion Lesson #13. From now on every night would be different...filled with endless variety."

One of the most erotic commercials I have ever seen is a British one (no doubt too racy for America) that features a man and a woman making love while feeding each other something. Because the commercial is shot with infrared film, we see only their shapes and intense patterns of red and yellow and blue. "Make Yourself Comfortable" is playing on the record player. They lick some substance off each other's bodies, while an elderly man below bangs on the ceiling with a broomstick, shouting "Mr. Rogers" (thus playing on the British slang "to roger," meaning to have intercourse, and also implying that the man is single and that this is a tryst, not a marriage). At the very end of the commercial we see that the couple's erotic toy is a pint of Häagen-Dazs ice cream. "Dedicated to pleasure" is the slogan.

This campaign ran in print too, with erotic black and white photographs by French photographer Jeanloup Sieff. In just a few months after the campaign broke in upscale magazines such as Tatler and Vogue, sales of Häagen-Dazs in Great Britain rose 400 percent. This spectacular success indicates that advertisers do indeed sometimes know what they are doing.

Of course, we are not stupid. We don't for a minute believe that we're actually going to improve our relationships with ice cream or pasta sauce. But these ads do contribute to a cultural climate in which relationships are constantly trivialized and we are encouraged to connect via consumption. An obsession with food interferes with real relationships just as any other obsession does, yet food advertising often normalizes and glamorizes such an obsession.

We are not only offered connection via the product, we are offered connection with the product. Food becomes the lover. "Rich, impeccable taste and not an ounce of fat. Wow, if only I could find a guy like that," says a woman holding a candy bar. "Looking for a light cheesy relationship?" asks an ad for macaroni and cheese, which concludes with a shot of the package and the copy, "Oh, baby, where have you been all my life?" And another ad features an extreme closeup of potatoes with the headline, "Potatoes that get more oohs and aahs than a supermodel." This ad ran in women's magazines and clearly targets women, so the promise is that the woman can distract her husband's attention from supermodels by cooking the right food.

Men are sometimes also targeted, however, with the message that food is love. In a commercial broadcast on Valentine's Day, romantic music plays as we see a couple coming out of the Tunnel of Love at an amusement park, embracing passionately. A voiceover says, "Can you put a price on love?" As the next boat comes out of the tunnel, carrying a man alone, eating a large hamburger, the voiceover continues, "You betcha -- if the object of your affection is a McDonald's Big Mac!" The man seems delirious with happiness as he eats his burger, and the voiceover gives some details about the price and says, "Taste that makes you swoon. Or, if you're a two-timer, get cozy with two Big Mac sandwiches. But hurry -- your love may be eternal but these prices aren't." The commercial ends with the old man who is running the ride looking with envy at the man with the burger while saying to his helper, "Where does one find such love?"

However, women and girls are targeted far more often. A television commercial broadcast during Sabrina, the Teenage Witch, a show popular with teenage girls, features a woman reading a book by a window. "You are my destiny, you share my reverie, you're more than life can be" plays in the background. The woman takes a bite of a cookie and fantasizes a handsome man on a white horse coming to her, riding his horse into her house. "Ah," a female voiceover says, "the new moister than ever devil's food cookie from SnackWell." The man reaches for the cookie and the woman turns him into a frog. "Passion, desire, devotion?" says the voiceover while the words appear on screen. "Nah, it goes way beyond that." This is funny, of course, but it also normalizes an obsession with food that takes precedence over human connection.

Another television commercial goes even further. It begins with an extreme closeup of the peaks and swirls of frosting on a cake. A woman's voice passionately says, "Oh, my love." A man's voice says, "Huh?" and the woman replies, "Not you -- the frosting!" With increasing excitement, she continues, "It's calling my name!" and the man replies, "Janet?" The woman cries out, "I'm yours!" as a male voiceover says, "Give in to the rich and creamy temptation of Betty Crocker frosting." As one of the peaks of the frosting peaks, so to speak, and then droops, the woman says, in a voice rich with satisfaction, "That was great." As is often the case, this ad is very funny and seemingly harmless. But also, as is often the case, it is frightful upon reflection. A human relationship is trivialized and ignored ("Not you -- the frosting!") while someone connects passionately with a product. Imagine if this were an ad for alcohol ("Not you -- the bourbon!"). Perhaps we'd understand how sad and alienating it is.

"I had a dream about salad dressing. Is that weird?" asks a woman lifting a lettuce leaf to her mouth. Of course it's weird! A Cool Whip ad shows a manicured hand plunging a strawberry into whipped cream and the caption, "Go skinny dippin'." And an ad for frozen yogurt features a closeup of a woman's face in what looks like sexual ecstasy and the copy, "Vanilla so pure it sends chills down your spine and back up again." Another version of the ad shows the same ecstatic face and the copy, "Your tastebuds cry out yes yes. Oh, yes." Shades of Molly Bloom!

Certainly food can be an important part of loving ourselves and others. It can be comforting as well as nourishing and indeed it can be sexy. When a friend of mine told her husband on the phone that she had just eaten a persimmon, he said, "You had sex without me!" Who can forget the erotic feasting scene in the film Tom Jones, the characters looking hungrily at each other, grease glistening on their lips, while ripping meat from bones? This scene, which shocked many people back in 1963, would be tame compared to many food advertisements today.

Often food is shot in extreme closeup and is very sensually inviting. "Bet this little lite will turn you on," says an ad that features a very suggestive closeup of the inside of a candy bar. Another ad featuring a Fudgsicle oozing its chocolate filling is headlined, "Introducing our deep, dark secret," and an ad for a cereal bar says, "Trapped inside this wholesome rolled oats crust is a sultry little French pastry struggling to get out."

A hilarious ad for sour cream features a baked potato begging for the sour cream's touch, "'re driving me wild." Another baked potato is brought to ecstasy by a bottle of tabasco sauce (named "The Exciter"). Indeed there were a series of ads featuring tabasco sauce as a stud. At the end of what must have been a wild night in the kitchen, the bottle is on its side, empty, and the copy says, "A good time was had by all." These ads are powerful examples of the wit, humor, and sheer cleverness one sometimes finds in advertising. There is no harm and indeed much delight in them individually, but their cumulative impact is another story.

Just what is this cumulative impact? What's the problem? For one thing, when food is sex, eating becomes a moral issue -- and thinness becomes the equivalent of virginity. The "good girl" today is the thin girl, the one who keeps her appetite for food (and power, sex, and equality) under control. "I'm a girl who just can't say no. I insist on dessert," proclaims a thin woman in an ad for a sugar-free gelatin. It used to be that women who couldn't say no were talking about something other than food. Women were supposed to control their sexual appetites. Now we're supposed to control our appetite for food. If a woman comes back from a weekend and says she was "bad," we assume she broke her diet, not that she did something interesting sexually. The ménage à trois we are made to feel ashamed of is with Ben and Jerry.

"Pizza without guilt," declares an ad featuring a heavyset woman tied up to keep her from eating regular pizza. Weight Watchers ads feature extreme closeups of rich foods and the slogan, "Total indulgence. Zero guilt." As if women should feel guilty about eating!

In the old days, bad girls got pregnant. These days they get fat -- and are more scorned, shamed, and despised than ever before. Prejudice against fat people, especially against fat women, is one of the few remaining prejudices that is socially acceptable. This strikes fear into the hearts of most women, who are terrified of inspiring revulsion and ridicule. And this contributes mightily, of course, to the obsession with thinness that has gripped our culture for many years, with devastating consequences for many women and girls.

A television commercial for ice cream features actor Bernadette Peters in slinky pajamas in her kitchen at night. "I love being naughty," she says in her little-girl voice, "especially when I can get away with it. Like with Breyer's light ice cream. It has less fat so I can indulge in sinful fudge...real vanilla." Her voice is rising as she becomes more excited and builds to an orgasmic crescendo -- "Mmmm, pure true taste!" Almost out of breath, she slides down the refrigerator door, saying, "I feel like I'm cheating, but I'm not...what a shame."

This moral tone shows up again and again, often with religious connotations. A rich chocolate sundae is labeled "Temptation" on one side of a page. On the other is the "Salvation," a low-calorie shake. "40% Sin 60% Forgiveness," proclaims an ad featuring a priest eating a blend of butter and margarine. And an ad for pork, touting its leanness, says, "We lead you to temptation but deliver you from evil."

However, unlike traditional religious morality in which one has to suffer, to do penance in order to be saved, we are offered products that will allow us to sin without consequence. Just as advertising constantly offers us sex without the burdens and responsibilities of a relationship, it offers us the pleasure of consuming rich foods without having to "pay the price." Now that we have birth control, to eliminate the "sin" of pregnancy but not the joy of sex, all we need is girth control, to eliminate the "sin" of obesity but not the joy of overeating. It doesn't matter if we are "guilty" as long as we don't look it. If we can remain thin by taking laxatives or diet pills or chugging artificially sweetened colas and eating low-fat ice cream rather than exercising moderately and eating healthfully or joining a recovery program, so much the better. In fact, bulimia is the ultimate solution.

Another problematic aspect of the cumulative impact of food advertising is that many ads normalize and glamorize harmful and often dangerous attitudes toward food and eating. And we suffer drastically as a culture from the negative consequences of these attitudes. About eighty million Americans are clinically obese, and nearly three out of four are overweight. Indeed, in a culture seemingly obsessed with thinness and fitness, Americans are fatter than ever and fatter than people in most other cultures. Eight million Americans suffer from an eating disorder and as many as 10 percent of all college-age women are bulimic. Eating disorders are the third most common chronic illness among females. In fact, they are so common it really is misleading to refer to them as "disorders." More accurately, they are a common way that women cope with the difficulties in their lives and with the cultural contradictions involving food and eating. Few of us aren't touched by some kind of problem with food (not to mention the thirty million at risk for hunger and malnutrition).

There are many reasons for these problems, ranging from the decrease in physical education in our schools to our use of the automobile to the development of the TV remote control to fear of crime, which keeps people indoors, often in front of the television set with its blaring litany of commercials for junk food and diet products. American children see over ten thousand commercials for food on television each year. Ninety-five percent are for four food groups: soft drinks, candy, fast food, and sugar-coated cereal. There's a lot of money at stake: Americans spend an estimated $14 billion a year on snack foods, $15 billion on chocolate, and $86 billion on fast food restaurants.

The commercials are only one part of the problem, but they are a significant part. Just as alcohol ads teach us that drinking leads inevitably to good times, great sex, athletic prowess, and success, without any risks or negative consequences whatsoever, so do the food ads associate eating and overeating with only good things. The negative consequences are obliterated. Indeed, in order to maximize their profits, the junk food and the diet industries need to normalize and glamorize disordered and destructive attitudes toward food and eating.

One of the clearest examples of this is the advertising campaigns for Häagen-Dazs ice cream over a period of several years. In 1990 "Enter the state of Häagen-Dazs" was the slogan for this popular ice cream. The ads featured blissful men and women eating Häagen-Dazs. Sometimes the container was empty, but the people seemed calm and happy, somewhat smug, maybe even slightly stoned. The focus was on the smiling person in the ad, not the product, and the ad was in full color.

In 1991 a new Häagen-Dazs campaign featured ghostly black-and-white photographs of people with copy inscribed over their faces. In one a man is saying, "Maybe I'm a bit of a perfectionist. My CD's are in alphabetical order....Yet everytime I have Häagen-Dazs I seem to lose control....Each creamy spoonful was a moment suspended in time. I would have stopped before I finished the whole pint. Only problem was, I couldn't find the lid."

In another, a woman says, "I pride myself on my level-headed approach to life....But all it takes is one smooth taste of Häagen-Dazs Strawberry ice cream and I find myself letting go....I must do something about this Häagen-Dazs passion. Maybe I could organize it, structure it or control it...tomorrow." The campaign slogan is "Täaste the Passion." What an invitation to binge this is! People who feel too controlled in their lives, with too few avenues to real passion, often turn to food or other potentially addictive products as a way to loosen up, to relax. This campaign normalizes and legitimizes this process.

By 1992 there were no longer people in the ads at all, simply a large photograph of the pint of ice cream, with copy beginning in small letters and gradually growing larger and larger. "Wow have you seen it? Another outrageous Exträas ice cream from Häagen-Dazs....Oh my gosh! Luscious fudge chunks too. Give me the entire pint of Cookie Dough Dynamo!"

These few years of Häagen-Dazs advertising perfectly illustrate the progression of addiction. The first ad features a woman nibbling on an ice cream bar, somewhat spaced-out but still in control. In the second, a man talks about losing control and unintentionally finishing a pint. In the third, someone is shouting "I need it" and "Give me the entire pint." Granted, this is not heroin we're talking about. But compulsive overeaters will certainly say that their addiction rules and ruins their lives as completely as any other.

Although addiction to food is often trivialized, it is in fact a major problem for many women and men. People who binge on food and overeat compulsively say this has the same effect on their minds and lives as does addiction to alcohol and other drugs. They experience the terror of loss of control, diminished self-esteem, damaged relationships, and even such consequences as hangovers and blackouts. In Make the Connection, her best-selling book about overcoming a lifelong eating problem, Oprah Winfrey writes about a binge she had when all she could find in her kitchen was salt, Tabasco sauce, starch, maple syrup, and frozen hot dog buns. "Quickly I turned the oven on broil, threw the buns in to thaw out, and even before they could, I grabbed the syrup and smeared it over the partly burnt, partly frozen buns. Looking back, I see no difference between myself and a junkie, scrambling for a needle and whatever dope might be around. Food was my drug."

There are those who question whether food can be truly addictive. They believe that compulsive overeaters simply lack willpower. Some people still feel this way about alcoholics, although there is much more evidence these days that alcoholism is a disease. Scientists increasingly are discovering physiological and biochemical bases for eating disorders just as for alcoholism. A 1999 study, published in the American Medical Association's Archives of General Psychiatry, found that bulimia springs at least in part from a chemical malfunction in the brain resulting in low levels of serotonin, a mood-and-appetite-regulating chemical.

These days many people are cross-addicted. In fact, it is rare to find someone with a single addiction. Most alcoholics are addicted to other drugs too, especially nicotine. Women often wash their tranquilizers down with alcohol or become addicted to amphetamines in an attempt to control their obsession with food. The frequency of eating disorders is significantly higher in alcoholic women than in the general population. Many women with eating disorders come from alcoholic homes. Current research indicates that alcoholism and eating disorders often occur together but are transmitted independently in families. Whatever the origins, it is clear that neither alcoholism nor eating disorders are linked with any character weaknesses.

Advertisers are clearly aware of the psychology of food addiction and compulsive overeating. Since food addicts spend a lot of money on food, it is to the advertisers' advantage to make their obsessive and addictive attitudes seem normal and appropriate. An ad featuring a suggestive closeup of a candy bar says, "What you do in the dark is nobody else's business." Compulsive eaters almost always binge alone and feel terribly ashamed. This ad is clearly meant both to tempt and to assuage guilt feelings, to help the eater rationalize his or her behavior, to create the climate of denial so essential for addictions to flourish.

A 1998 SnackWell's campaign cuts right to the heart of the matter by openly declaring that eating cookies will boost a woman's self-esteem. The commercials show scenes of women in warm family embraces while a voiceover says that eating SnackWell's isn't about feeding yourself but "feeding your self-esteem," "treating yourself well," and "fulfilling yourself." Even Bob Garfield of Advertising Age responded to this campaign with "Women of America, feel better about yourselves: Pig out on crap!" He continues, "Feeling a bit down on yourself? Have a cookie. Career stagnating and love life not working out? Have 28 cookies. Suicidal depression? Get the caramel-filled one, melt it in a spoon and inject it directly into your vein." Eating to feel better about oneself is not a healthy idea -- it is a symptom of a problem.

A recent candy commercial further illustrates this normalization of problematic attitudes. The commercial begins with a middle-aged man seated in an armchair, holding a piece of candy in his hand. He says, "What a combination -- crunchy Werther's toffee and delicious milk chocolate...mmm." The scene switches to a beautiful young blond woman standing beside her car. She is holding a bag of the candy and says, "I keep one bag in the car, one in my desk, one in the living room, and one next to my bed." Hoarding the supply is one of the signs of addiction. Although alcoholics are best known for this (hiding bottles in toilet tanks and linen closets), most addicts do it. Surely a woman who can't be far from her stash of candy has got a problem.

The next scene in the commercial features a man in a suit holding up one piece of candy, almost as if it were a cigar, and saying, "Now that's where there's quality." Next we see a middle-aged woman pouring the candy into a dish in her kitchen. She says, "Nothing but the best for my guests." Next, a woman in a slinky black dress is seated in an armchair beside a blazing fire. A bag of chocolates is cuddled up against her. She slowly unwraps one piece and pops it in her mouth, saying suggestively, "It's going to be a nice evening." At this point, we see a closeup of a bowl of candy and a male voiceover touts its virtues. The commercial ends with another attractive young blond woman, sitting barefoot on a bench outdoors and holding a bag of the candy. Pulling one from the bag, she says, giggling, "I start on them right after breakfast."

This commercial normalizes some potentially dangerous attitudes toward food in some rather subtle ways. The women in trouble -- the two young blondes and the woman by the fireplace -- are sandwiched between people with more healthful attitudes. These three women are holding the entire bag of candy, whereas the men are holding only one piece and the middle-aged woman is pouring the candy into a bowl to serve to others. The first troubled woman is hoarding her supply, the second is seemingly preparing for a binge, and the third is rationalizing eating the candy all day long, beginning in the morning.

Thus, women with disordered attitudes toward food, women who seem to be compulsive eaters, are presented as normal, desirable, and even especially attractive. Why would the candy manufacturers want to do this? Because the compulsive eaters, obviously, are going to spend a great deal more on the candy than are the people who eat it infrequently, a piece or two at a time. No matter what a company is selling, the heavy user is their best customer. Thus, it is always in their best interest to normalize and encourage heavy use, even if that might have destructive or even deadly consequences.

Obsession with food is also presented as normal and even as attractive in an ad for sugar-free pudding that features a pretty young woman with a spoonful of pudding in her mouth and the headline, "Dessert? It's always on the tip of my tongue." The copy continues, "Really. I mean, if I'm not eating dessert, I'm talking about it. If I'm not talking about it, I'm eating it. And I'm always thinking about it....It's just always on my mind." Like the women who obsess about candy, this young woman has a problem.

And, as is always the case in the world of advertising, the solution to her problem is a product, in this case a diet product. The ad promises her, as almost all the diet ads do, that she can have her pudding and eat it too. How odd this is, when we think about it. Here we are surrounded by all these tempting, luscious ads for food. We are told, on the one hand, give in, reward yourself, indulge. But, on the other hand, we (especially women) are told that we must be thin, indeed that there is no greater sin than being fat.

It might seem strange that there so many ads for diet products interspersed with ads for rich foods. It might seem stranger still that it is often so difficult to tell the difference between the junk food ads and the diet ads. However, this is not strange at all. The tempting food ads do not contradict the message of the diet culture. They are an integral part of it. The junk food industry and the diet industry depend on each other.

In order to be profitable, both these industries require that people be hooked on unhealthy and mostly unsatisfying food, high in fat and sugar. In addition, the diet industry depends upon a rigid cultural mandate for women to be thin. If we ate and took pleasure in basically healthy food and were physically active, if we recognized that bodies come in many different sizes and shapes, and we did not consider it necessary for women to be bone-thin to be attractive -- the junk food industry would lose a great deal of money and there would be no diet industry.

The success of the diet industry primarily depends on women being dissatisfied with their bodies. Many people say that advertising simply reflects the society. But certainly the body images of women that advertising reflects today are as distorted as the reflections in a funhouse mirror. Since advertising cashes in on women's body-hatred and distorted self-images, it sometimes deliberately promotes such distortion. A yogurt ad says, "How to go from seeing yourself like seeing yourself like this," and portrays the "before" image with a pear. In fact, it is perfectly normal for a woman to be pear-shaped. Many more women have pear-shaped bodies than have the V-shaped bodies of the models, but we don't see them in the media. Instead, we get the message that this shape is unacceptable.

The use of body doubles in films and commercials makes it even less likely that we'll see real women's bodies. A photograph of Julia Roberts and Richard Gere that was widely used to advertise the hit film Pretty Woman featured Julia Roberts's head but not her body. Apparently, even her body wasn't good enough or thin enough to be in the ad. A body double was also used for Roberts when she was nude or partially nude in the film. This is common practice in the industry. Not surprisingly, at least 85 percent of body doubles have breast implants.

Unfortunately, the obsession with thinness is becoming a problem throughout the developed world. "Le diete S.O.S.," the title of an article featured on the cover of an Italian magazine, is understood in many languages. Italy used to be a country where voluptuous women could still feel desirable, but the model on the cover shown measuring her waist is extremely thin by any standards.

The dieter, even more than the addict, is the ideal consumer. She (most dieters are women) will spend a lot on food and then spend even more to lose weight -- and the cycle never stops. Sales of low-fat frozen yogurt soar, but so do sales of high-fat premium ice cream. The diet industry, which includes diet drugs and other products, diet workshops and books, health spas, and more, has tripled in recent years, increasing from a $10 billion to a $36 billion-a-year industry. No one loses, especially the dieter (although she doesn't win either).

Some research indicates that thin people do live longer than overweight people. Some people have latched on to this as proof that we needn't worry about people dieting -- in fact, we should worry more if they don't diet. The truth, however, is that fatness is related to the obsession with thinness. Chronic dieting is part of the generally bad eating and exercise habits that make so many Americans overweight and unhealthy. Although being thin is good for one's heart, dieting is bad for everyone.

The fat-free products we consume in great quantities are often bad for us. We eat them instead of eating healthy foods, drinking Coke and Pepsi instead of water, lunching on low-fat cold cuts instead of grains and vegetables and snacking on cholesterol-free cookies instead of fruit. We welcome artificial sweeteners and fake fats, even if they have unpleasant or unhealthy side effects. Olestra, the latest fake fat, not only removes some fat-soluble vitamins from the body, it also sometimes causes bloating, diarrhea, and cramping, as well as what is referred to as "rectal leakage."

Sometimes the ads themselves acknowledge the dangers of dieting. As is typical of advertising, however, the solution is not to stop the dangerous practice: The solution is another product. One ad for yogurt features a very young, very thin woman, and the headline "A body like this could be missing out on a lot." The ad acknowledges that the dieting required to keep this teenager so thin is robbing her body of necessary minerals and vitamins. Similarly, another ad reminds us that dieting damages skin tone. The solution, as always, is the product, a skin cream. Neither ad questions the practice of dieting.

An ad featuring a beautiful blonde says, "Christina is a 5'10", 125 lb. fashion model of Scandinavian heritage. Everyone thinks she has the most marvelous bone structure. She doesn't. She is on her way to osteoporosis." The copy continues, "Her cheekbones are to die for, but not her vertebrae. Too many diets and too little calcium have left her bone density below average. If she doesn't do something, she'll shrink. Her spine will compact. Her clothes won't fit. Looking up at the sky will be impossible." The solution to this impending catastrophe? Certainly not for Christina to stop dieting. Rather, she simply should take calcium supplements. Maybe she should just buy a periscope so she can continue to see the sky.

Christina is five feet ten inches tall and weighs 125 pounds! She is a genetic freak. It's hard not to be a dieter when this is the ideal body type reflected throughout the media and the consequences for not having it are so extreme. Ninety-five percent of all women are excluded from this ideal, which is virtually unattainable by most women, yet it is they who feel abnormal and deviant. As an ad for the Body Shop, featuring a voluptuous Barbie-type doll, says, "There are 3 billion women who don't look like supermodels and only 8 who do." As a result, more than half the adult women in the United States are currently dieting, and over three-fourths of normal-weight American women think they are "too fat."

Certainly this delusion comes at least in part from the media images that surround us. Yesterday's sex symbols by today's standards would be considered fat: Betty Grable, Jane Russell, Marilyn Monroe -- or just the pretty young woman on the beach featured on a cover of Life magazine in 1970. To be sure, there are some large women today, such as Rosie O'Donnell, the plus-size model Emme, and Delta Burke, who are very successful. However, it has been estimated that twenty years ago the average model weighed 8 percent less than the average woman; today she weighs 23 percent less.

Ironically, what is considered sexy today is a look that almost totally suppresses female secondary sexual characteristics, such as large breasts and hips. Thinness is related to decreased fertility and sexuality in women. Indeed, many of the ultrathin models have ceased to menstruate. Chronic dieting is damaging to one's health and upsets the body's natural metabolism. In 1997 the drug combination of fenfluramine and phentermine, known as fen/phen, was pulled off the market by the FDA because of a high incidence of heart problems among patients who take it. Not surprisingly, research has also found that dieters often experience a temporary drop in mental abilities and thus have less energy to focus on tasks other than controlling their food.

Although the dangers of dieting are sometimes mentioned in women's magazines, the warning is certainly diminished, if not entirely negated, by the ads surrounding the articles. The May 1997 issue of Vogue contained an article about the dangers of diet pills called "Dying to Lose Weight." However, on the opposite page is an ad for Special K, a low-calorie cereal, featuring a tiny bikini and the tagline, "It's not doing you any good tucked away in your bottom drawer." To Kellogg's credit, it completely revamped the Special K campaign in 1998 and ran ads and commercials that explicitly challenged the emphasis on thinness and uniformity. The funniest was a commercial featuring several men sitting around talking about their bodies in the way that women often do -- "Do these jeans make my butt look big?" and "I have to face it -- I have my mother's thighs." The commercial made it obvious how absurd this kind of conversation is and how different are the cultural expectations for women and men. Unfortunately, commercials like this are very few and far between.

In addition to all the psychic and physical damage the diet products do, they don't even fulfill their purpose, at least not for long. Ninety-five percent of dieters are even fatter after five years of dieting than before they began. This information, if widely disseminated throughout the mass media, could be as damaging to corporate profits as is the information that cigarette smoking causes lung cancer. It is no surprise that, in both cases, there is widespread distortion and suppression of such information. Indeed, the only thing that could destroy the diet industry faster than the truth about the failure rates of diets would be a diet that did work.

A Weight Watchers ad features a Boston cream pie, oozing its creamy filling, and the caption, "Feel free to act on impulse." Why would Weight Watchers, of all companies, use such tempting images? Because it is, after all, in Weight Watchers' best interest for its customers to fail, to relapse, to have to return again and again. If people really lost weight and kept it off, Weight Watchers and other such programs would quickly go out of business.

Food ads are often funny, clever, highly entertaining. But food that is heavily advertised is seldom nourishing and rarely deeply satisfying. Often it is sold in a way that exploits and trivializes our very basic human need for love and connection. It is wonderful to celebrate food, to delight in it. Food can nourish us and bring us joy...but it cannot love us, it cannot fill us up emotionally. If we turn to food as a substitute for human connection, we turn away from that which could fill up the emptiness we sometimes feel inside -- authentic, mutual, satisfying relationships with other human beings. And when people use food as a way to numb painful feelings, to cope with a sense of inner emptiness, and as a substitute for human relationships, for living fully, many of them end up with eating problems that can destroy them and that certainly, ironically, destroy any pleasure they might get from food.

Copyright © 1999 by Jean Kilbourne

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 5, 2000

    Advertising: Blessing or Curse?

    Jean Kilbourne does a very good job in drawing our attention to the fact that advertising influences us more than we think. Advertising is part of our environment. Most of us, however, dismiss the influence of advertising on our life because we often consider ads to be silly, trivial, fun, ridiculous. Advertisers even capitalize on our ego by insinuating that we are too smart to be taken in by advertising. The attitude of denial allows advertising to do its persuasive work. Kilbourne tirelessly warns us about the dangerous side effects of advertising. She illustrates her case with numerous ads. Kilbourne's central hypothesis is that advertising helps to create a climate in which certain attitudes and values prosper, such as the objectification of women, male violence, addiction normality. Furthermore, Kilbourne demonstrates with many examples that the emptier we feel, the greater consumers we are. That unease with our self can lead us to confuse addiction with freedom and conformity with rebellion. Advertising, of course, has a solution (read a product, a service) that can meet or fix each of our needs or problems instantly or at least quickly. Kilbourne also stresses the large impact that advertising has on the media that we consume via the suppression of material that would offend the sponsor and via the inclusion of editorial content that does not interfere with sponsor's business. In addition, Kilbourne reminds us that most industries logically fight hardest against taxes or any restrictions on advertising that have an impact on their bottom line or burden them with additional responsibilities. However, Kilbourne is not able or willing to accept that advertising is one of the key building blocks of a well-oiled capitalist economy. Advertising allows businesses to communicate the features/benefits of their product offering to their targeted market segment and to persuade that market segment that the offering meets their wants/needs. Furthermore, Kilbourne does not mention that more and more of us own shares in a growing number of enterprises and expect nothing less that the optimization of shareholder value. In addition, Kilbourne overestimates human nature. Most of us are not able or willing to be 100% rational all the time. Finally, Kilbourne does not stress enough that parents, schools, churches and other organizations have a key role to play in educating children and teenagers about the influence of advertising on their thoughts and behaviors.

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