You're soaking in it

Ad critic Jean Kilbourne rips into "toxic" marketing aimed at women. The second of two related articles on advertising.

Published January 30, 2001 8:11PM (EST)

"Advertisers know what womanpower is," explains a self-promotional pitch for the Ladies' Home Journal. The ad shows a stylish woman wired to a mammoth computer that measures her whims with graphs, light bulbs and ticker tape. The magazine insists that, like the machine, it has its finger on the pulse of women's desires. Perk and breathlessness permeate its claim to be able to harness the many elements of "womanpower," including "sales power" ("She spots a bright idea in her favorite magazine, and suddenly the whole town's sold on it!"), "will power" ("Can you stick to a nine-day diet for more than four hours at a stretch?") and, of course, "purchasing power" ("Isn't it the power of her purse that's been putting fresh smiles on the faces of America's businessmen?").

That was 1958. Today advertisers are generally more sophisticated in their execution, but their primary message to and about women has remained fundamentally unchanged. To tap into our power, offer us a new shade of lipstick, a fresh-scented floor wax or, in the case of Mel Gibson's patronizing chick flick, "What Women Want," L'eggs pantyhose, Wonderbras or Nike Women's Sports gear.

The movie -- No. 2 at the box office after a month in theaters -- stars Gibson as Nick Marshall, a pompous advertising executive dubbed the "T&A King" for his successful reign over Swedish bikini-babe commercials. But Nick's campaigns leave female consumers cold and he loses an expected promotion to women's market whiz Darcy Maguire (Helen Hunt). Nick's boss explains that while he's more comfortable with Nick, men no longer dominate how ad dollars are being spent.

Once Nick acquires the ability to read women's minds -- after an unfortunate incident with volumizing mousse, a hair dryer and a bathtub -- a story unfolds that could only seem romantic to avid Advertising Age readers: Nick and his nemesis Darcy fall in love over Nike storyboards, brainstorming ways to convince consumers that "Nike wants to empower women" and "Nike is state-of-the-art, hardcore womanpower."

"What Women Want" is more than a commercial for Mars vs. Venus gender typing; it's a feature-length product placement, a jarring reminder that the entertainment media is up for grabs by the hawkers of hair spray and Hondas. Which is not to say that the news media is off limits. Take Disney's news giant, ABC. In November, after ABC accepted a hefty fee from Campbell's soup, journalist Barbara Walters and "The View" crew turned eight episodes of their talk show into paid infomercials for canned soup. Hosting a "soup-sipping contest" and singing the "M'm! M'm! Good!" jingle on-air, they made good on ABC's promise that the "hosts would try to weave a soup message into their regular on-air banter."

And in March, after Disney bought a stake in, the company's snarky sock puppet mascot began appearing as a "guest" on "Good Morning America" and "Nightline." It was a sad day in news when Diane Sawyer addressed her questions to a sock on a stool with a guy's hand up its butt, but that's what passes for "synergy" in today's megamerged media climate.

How does advertising's increasing encroachment into every niche of mass media impact our culture in general, and women in particular? Mothers Who Think asked pioneering advertising critic Jean Kilbourne, author of "Can't Buy My Love: How Advertising Changes the Way We Think and Feel."

A favorite on the college lecture circuit, Kilbourne has produced videos that are used as part of media literacy programs worldwide, in particular "Killing Us Softly," first produced in 1979 and remade as "Killing Us Softly III" in 2000. She shares her thoughts here about advertising's effects on women, children, media and our cultural environment -- and explains why salvation can't be found in a Nike sports bra.

In "What Women Want," Mel Gibson and Helen Hunt produce a Nike commercial in which a woman runs in swooshed-up sportswear while a voice-over assures her that the road doesn't care if she's wearing makeup, and she doesn't have to feel uncomfortable if she makes more money than the road -- basically equating freedom and liberation with a pair of $150 running shoes. Is this typical of advertising to women?

Absolutely. The commercial in the movie is saying that women who are unhappy with the quality of their relationships can ease their frustration by literally forming a more satisfying relationship with the road. There's no hint that her human relationships are going to improve, but the road will love her anyway.

Advertising is always about moving away from anything that would help us find real change in our lives. In the funniest scene in the movie, when Mel Gibson finds out how much it hurts to wax his legs, he wonders, "Why would anyone do this more than once?" That's a very good question. But, of course, the film doesn't go there. The real solutions -- to stop waxing or to challenge unnatural beauty standards or to demand that men grow up -- are never offered. Instead, the message is that we must continue with these painful and humiliating rituals, but at least we can escape for a while by lacing on our expensive sneakers and going out for a run.

"What Women Want" presents a pretty mercenary picture of advertising aimed at women. You've studied the industry for decades. Does it seem accurate to you?

It isn't far off. As in the film, advertisers were kind of slow to really focus on women. Initially they did it by co-opting feminism. Virginia Slims equated women's liberation and enslavement to tobacco with the trivializing slogan "You've come a long way, baby" in the '80s; a little while ago it ran a campaign with the slogan "Find your voice."

Then there were endless ads that turned the women's movement into the quest for a woman's product. Was there ever such a thing as static cling before there were fabric softeners and sprays? More recently advertisers have discovered what they call "relationship marketing," creating ads that exploit a human need for connection and relationships, which in our culture is often seen as a woman's need.

Advertising and the larger culture often imply that women are failures if we do not have perfect relationships. Of course, "perfect" relationships don't exist in real life. Why are they so prominent in ads?

This is part of the advertising mentality. Think about "What Women Want" -- there's an ad at the heart of this film literally and figuratively. Everybody lives in spectacular apartments, they're all thin and beautiful, and Mel Gibson makes this incredible instant transformation. He starts out as a jerk, he's callous, he tells degrading jokes and patronizes the women he works with, but because of his new mind-reading power he gains immediate insight into women. He becomes a great lover in the space of half an hour. At one point his daughter tells him he's never had a real relationship in his life, but by the end of the film he has authentic relationships with his daughter and his new love.

The truth is, most men gain insight into women not through quick fixes but by having close relationships with them over time, sometimes painfully. In the world of advertising, relationships are instant and the best ones aren't necessarily with people: Zest is a soap, Happy is a perfume, New Freedom is a maxipad, Wonder is a bread, Good Sense is a tea bag and Serenity is a diaper. Advertising actually encourages us to have relationships with our products.

I'm looking at TV Guide right now and there's a Winston cigarette ad on the back cover with a woman saying, "Until I find a real man, I'll take a real smoke." There's another with four different pictures of one man with four different women, and the copy reads, "Who says guys are afraid of commitment? He's had the same backpack for years." In another ad, featuring a young woman wearing a pretty sweater, the copy says, "The ski instructor faded away after one session. Fortunately the sweater didn't."

One automobile spot implied that a Civic coupe would never tell you, "It's not you, it's me. I need more space. I'm not ready for a commitment." Maybe our chances for lasting relationships are greater with our cars than with our partners, but surely the solution can't be to fall in love with our cars, or to depend on them rather than on each other.

Basically, men can't be trusted but Häagen-Dazs never disappoints? Love is fleeting but a diamond is forever? Sort of a recipe for lowered expectations, isn't it?

A central message of advertising is that relationships with human beings can't be counted on, especially for women. The message is that men will make commitments only reluctantly and can't be trusted to keep them. Straight women, and these are pretty much the women in ads, are told that it's normal not to expect very much or get very much from the men in their lives. This normalizes really abnormal behavior -- with male violence at the extreme and male callousness in general -- by reinforcing men's unwillingness to express their feelings. This harms men, of course, as well as women.

In "What Women Want," Mel Gibson is literally able to "get into the female psyche," private thoughts and all, after he waxes his hairy legs and crams them into a pair of L'eggs pantyhose. Is it unusual for advertisers to imply that the essence of womanhood can be found in cosmetics and commercialism?

Not at all. The central message of advertising has to be that we are what we buy. And perhaps what's most insidious about this is that it takes very human, very real feelings and desires such as the need to love and be loved, the need for authentic connection, the need for meaningful work, for respect, and it yokes these feeling to products. It tells us that our ability to attain love depends upon our attractiveness.

By now most of us know that these images are unrealistic and unhealthy, that implants leak, anorexia and bulimia can kill and, in real life, model Heidi Klum has pores. So why do the images in ads still have such sway over us?

Most people like to think advertising doesn't affect them. But if that were really true, why would companies spend over $200 billion a year on advertising? Women don't buy into this because we're shallow or vain or stupid but because the stakes are high. Overweight women do tend to face biases -- they're less likely to get jobs; they're poorer. Men do leave their wives for younger, more beautiful women as their wives age. There is manifest contempt and real-life consequences for women who don't measure up. These images work to keep us in line.

What do these images teach girls about what they can expect from themselves, from boys, from sex, from each other?

Girls get terrible messages about sex from advertising and popular culture. An ad featuring a very young woman in tight jeans reads: "He says the first thing he noticed about you is your great personality. He lies." Girls are told that boys are out for sex at all times, and girls should always look as if they are ready to give it. (But God help them if they do.) The emphasis for girls and women is always on being desirable, not being agents of their own desire. Girls are supposed to somehow be innocent and seductive, virginal and experienced, all at the same time.

Girls are particularly targeted by the diet industry. The obsession with thinness is about cutting girls down to size, making sure they're not too powerful in any sense of the word. One fashion ad I use in my presentations shows an extremely thin, very young Asian woman next to the copy "The more you subtract, the more you add."

Adolescent girls constantly get the message that they should diminish themselves, they should be less than what they are. Girls are told not to speak up too much, not to be too loud, not to have a hearty appetite for food or sex or anything else. Girls are literally shown being silenced in ads, often with their hands over their mouth or, as in one ad, with a turtleneck sweater pulled up over their mouth.

One ad sold lipstick with a drawing of a woman's lips sucking on a pacifier. A girl in a particularly violent entertainment ad has her lips sewn shut. Sometimes girls are told to keep quiet in other ways, by slogans like "Let your fingers do the talking" (an ad for nail polish), "Watch your mouth, young lady" (for lipstick), "Make a statement without saying a word" (for perfume), "Score high on non-verbal skills" (for a clothing store).

Let's talk about violence against women in ads. A controversy broke out during the Olympics when NBC ran a Nike commercial parodying slasher films, in which Olympic runner Suzy Favor Hamilton is chased by a villain with a chain saw. Hamilton outruns him, leaving the would-be murderer wheezing in the woods. The punch line? "Why sport? You'll live longer." The ad shocked many people, but isn't violence against women, real or implied, common in ads?

People were outraged that Nike considered this type of thing a joke. A recent Perry Ellis sequence showed a woman apparently dead in a shower with a man standing over her; that one drew protests, too. But ads often feature images of women being threatened, attacked or killed. Sexual assault and battery are normalized, even eroticized.

In one ad a woman lies dead on a bed with her breasts exposed and her hair sprawled out around her, and the copy reads, "Great hair never dies." A perfume ad that ran in several teen magazines showed a very young woman with her eyes blackened, next to the text "Apply generously to your neck so he can smell the scent as you shake your head 'no.'" In other words, he'll understand that you don't really mean it when you say no, and he can respond like any other animal.

An ad for a bar in Georgetown with a close-up of a cocktail had the headline "If your date won't listen to reason, try a velvet hammer." That's really dangerous when you consider how many sexual assaults involve alcohol in some way. We believe we are not affected by these images, but most of us experience visceral shock when we pay conscious attention to them.

Are there subtler forms of abuse in ads?

There's a lot of emotional violence in ads. For example, in one cologne ad a handsome man ignores two beautiful blonds. The copy reads, "Do you want to be the one she tells her deep, dark secrets to? Or do you want to be her deep, dark secret?" followed by a final instruction: "Don't be such a good boy." What's the deep, dark secret here? That he's sleeping with both of them? On one level the message is that the way to get beautiful women is to ignore them, perhaps mistreat them. The message to men is that emotional intimacy is not a good thing. This does terrible things to men, and of course to women too.

There are also many, many ads in which women are pitted against each other for male attention. For example, there's one ad with a topless woman on a bed and the copy "What the bitch who's about to steal your man wears." Other ads feature young women fighting or glaring at each other. This means that when girls hit adolescence, at a time when they most need support from each other, they're encouraged to turn on each other in competition for men. It's tragic, because the truth is that one of the most powerful antidotes to destructive cultural messages is close and supportive female friendships.

Over the years we've grown more accustomed to product placements in movies, but "What Women Want" takes advertiser-driven content to a new level. I tried to keep a running count, but there were so many I lost track: Sears, L'eggs, Wonderbra, Macintosh, Martha Stewart, CNN, Meredith Brooks and Alanis Morissette CD covers all get prominent plugs.

The final commercial Gibson pitches to the Nike reps was similar in style, tone and prime-time-friendly slogan to sports ads we've seen on TV before. Would you be surprised if Nike's fake ad eventually traveled from the big screen to the small screen? How did we get to a point where the whole premise of a film rests on product placements?

I wouldn't be surprised at all. In fact, the ad in the movie was made in connection with Wieden + Kennedy, Nike's real-life ad agency. But Nike doesn't really need to pay to broadcast the commercial on TV, since this film was so successful at the box office -- there couldn't be a better launch for a commercial than this movie.

I think this is the wave of the future. As more and more people use their VCR to skip the commercials when they watch television, the commercials will begin to become part of the program so they can't be edited out. So while you're watching "Friends," Jennifer Aniston will say to Courteney Cox, "Your hair looks great," and Courteney will say, "Yeah, I'm using this new gel!"

A number of media critics have dubbed the encroachment of advertising in media, education and public spaces "ad creep." You've called it a "toxic cultural environment." Can you explain that?

As the mother of a 13-year-old girl, I feel I'm raising my daughter in a toxic cultural environment. I hate that advertisers cynically equate rebellion with smoking, drinking and impulsive and impersonal sex. I want my daughter to be a rebel, to defy stereotypes of "femininity," but I don't want her to put herself in danger. I feel I have to fight the culture every step of the way in terms of messages she gets.

Just as it is difficult to raise kids safely in a physically toxic environment, where they're breathing polluted air or drinking toxic water, it's also difficult or even impossible to raise children in a culturally toxic environment, where they're surrounded by unhealthy images about sex and relationships, and where their health is constantly sacrificed for the sake of profit.

Even our schools are toxic -- when McDonald's has a nutrition curriculum, Exxon has an environmental curriculum and kindergartners are given a program called "Learning to read through recognizing corporate logos." Education is tainted when a student can get suspended for wearing a Pepsi T-shirt on a school-sponsored Coke day, which happened in Georgia in 1998.

The United States is one of the few nations in the world that think that children are legitimate targets for advertisers. We allow the tobacco and alcohol industries to use talking frogs and lizards to sell beer and cartoon characters to sell cigarettes. The Budweiser commercials are in fact the most popular commercials with elementary school kids, and Joe Camel is now as recognizable to 6-year-olds as is Mickey Mouse.

What advice do you have for parents, for any of us, who want to counteract this toxic cultural environment?

Parents can talk to their children, make these messages conscious. We can educate ourselves and become media literate. But primarily we need to realize that this is not something we can fight purely on an individual basis.

Corporations are forever telling us that if we don't like what's on TV we should just turn it off, not let our kids watch tobacco ads or violent movies. We constantly hear that if parents would just talk to their kids there would be no problem. But that really is like saying, "If your children are breathing poisoned air, don't let them breathe."

We need to join together to change the toxic cultural environment. That includes things such as lobbying to teach noncorporate media literacy in our schools, fighting to abolish or restrict advertising aimed at children, organizing to get ads out of our schools, banning the promotion of alcohol and tobacco, and other community solutions.

There are great media literacy projects in Los Angeles, New Mexico, Massachusetts and many places throughout the world. There's no quick fix, but I have extensive resources about media criticism groups, social change organizations, educational material, media literacy programs and more available on my Web site. If they want, people could start there.

By Jennifer L. Pozner

Jennifer L. Pozner is a media critic, public speaker, and the founder and Executive Director of Women In Media & News. She is the author of "Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV," and the host of web series Web series "Reality Rehab with Dr. Jenn."

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