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Ad another thing: sounding the alarm about advertising's ill effects on society

Jean Kilbourne has been at it for more than four decades

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Jean Kilbourne was an adbuster long before there was anything close to resembling Adbusters.

When the acclaimed feminist scholar, author, filmmaker and media literacy pioneer, who speaks Thursday at 7:30 p.m., at the University of Winnipeg's Convocation Hall, began tearing advertisements out of magazines and posting them on her refrigerator back in 1968, she didn't know she would start a movement, let alone a respected field of study.

At the time, she just wanted to open people's eyes. She assembled the ads she collected into a slideshow presentation that she took to college campuses in the 1970s. She had one goal: tell anyone who would listen about the damaging effect ads were having on women.

"I was the first person to start talking about the image of women in advertising," Kilbourne, 70, recalls. "(The ads) were outrageous and no one was paying attention to them."

That scrappy slideshow presentation was the basis for Kilbourne's groundbreaking 1979 documentary, Killing Us Softly: Advertising's Image of Women, which became one of the top-selling educational videos of all time. Through an incisive feminist lens, Kilbourne dissected the ways in which ads create impossible ideals that women must spend an incredible amount of time, energy and money chasing.

She talked about the inordinate value placed on beauty, thinness and youth. She got people thinking about the objectification of women. She pointed out how sexist stereotypes reinforced a patriarchal society.

"In those days, there was also the stereotype of the housewife. Now, we have the Swiffer woman," Kilbourne deadpans.

She said advertising had a deep connection to a host of social issues, including addiction, violence against women and eating disorders.

It was trailblazing stuff. And it shocked people who saw the film.

"It was all very new in those days," Kilbourne says. "Everything I was saying was so radical. I did have to spend some time convincing." (People weren't expecting Killing Us Softly to be funny, either, as it frequently is. No one can call Jean Kilbourne a humourless feminist.)

Kilbourne has made a career of convincing people to sit up and take notice. Killing Us Softly spawned a series of films: Still Killing Us Softly (1987), Killing Us Softly 3 (2000) and Killing Us Softly 4 (2010) -- a fraction of an impressive filmography that takes on everything from advertising's obsession with thinness to our culture of violence to the sexualization of children.

She's written two books, 2000's Can't Buy My Love: How Advertising Changes the Way We Think and Feel (originally published as Deadly Persuasion in 1999) and 2008's So Sexy So Soon: the new sexualized childhood, and what parents can do to protect their kids. She remains a popular fixture of the lecture circuit.

That Kilbourne has worked so tirelessly for over four decades shows just how little has changed in the world of advertising.

"It's gotten much worse," she says. "The tyranny of the ideal image of beauty, the sexualization of children, the objectification of women -- it's all gotten worse. But the thing that's gotten better is the fact I'm not the only person talking about this anymore."

Indeed, in the intervening years since Killing Us Softly's release, media literacy has become an important area of study. Organizations such as Canada's Concerned Children's Advertisers, which launched in 1990, are using the medium to educate children and get them thinking critically about the images they see.

"I'm no longer alone," Kilbourne says. "There are a lot people researching and discussing these issues. We know now that the sexualization of children does real harm to children. That's not an opinion anymore."

She's also encouraged by young, plugged-in feminists and activists who use social media to get their points across.

"There's a groundswell of opposition and a movement to teach media literacy in schools." She points out that some advertisers are even taking baby steps, singling out the Dove: Real Beauty Campaign as an example. "It has its flaws, too, but it's a move in the right direction."

While progress is being made, she says, there's still a lot of work to be done. Kilbourne believes media literacy should be taught in schools, so the next generation can become critical media consumers. Kids are a primary target of advertising; in Kilbourne's native U.S., children between the ages of two and five spend 32 hours per week in front of the TV on average. They see thousands of advertising messages every day.

Still, Kilbourne says media literacy programs are still a far-off goal for many American schools.

"The schools in the U.S. are in terrible trouble," Kilbourne says. "Media literacy? Give me a break. Most aren't even teaching sex ed."

Here at home, media literacy is a unit in the Manitoba English Language Arts curriculum.

Media literacy, she says, is also not in the best interests of advertisers, particularly the alcohol and tobacco industries, which rely on addiction. Indeed, "advertisers don't want a media literate public."

And then, of course, there's good, old-fashioned apathy.

"We all believe we're not influenced by advertising -- and advertisers love that we believe that," Kilbourne says. "Ads are seen as stupid and trivial and we like to think we're superior to them. We tune them out and it's often true we don't pay conscious attention. But ads do their work whether we pay attention to them or not."

People are still as shocked by Kilbourne's presentations in 2013 as they were in 1979. "People are still often surprised, amazingly enough."

That's why she continues to do the work.

"I just do the best I can," she says. "I use facts. I use persuasion. I use humour. What I'm talking about is incredibly serious, so I consciously use humour to make it bearable.

"I believe that action is the antidote to despair," she adds. "The more we can get engaged, the better off we'll be."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 22, 2013 D1


Updated on Tuesday, October 22, 2013 at 6:37 AM CDT: Changes headline, adds photo

8:25 AM: adds image

9:48 AM: Removes redundant words

10:05 AM: Clarifies in the U.S., children between the ages of two and five spend 32 hours per week in front of the TV on average,

10:24 AM: Notes media literacy is a unit in the Manitoba English Language Arts curriculum.

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