The Common Good
May-June 2000

Unhooking Ourselves

by Joe Kelly | May-June 2000

Breaking our deadly addiction to advertising.

As an activist in the girls’ movement and father of two girls, I’ve always known that far too many advertising images were bad for girls. In a brilliant and logical argument, author Jean Kilbourne makes the connection between the premises of advertising and the scourge of addiction. Denial is the most intractable symptom of addiction, and Deadly Persuasion: Why Women and Girls Must Fight the Addictive Power of Advertising is among the most potent interventions available for our addiction to advertising, consumerism, and the immoral ways in which our commercial culture so often undermines our integrity.

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For years, Kilbourne has taken her powerful, funny, and life-changing presentations to college campuses, businesses, and the federal government. Now she has combined this huge mine of information, insight, and critique into one outstanding book.

As Kilbourne shows, we are what’s for sale. Media outlets aren’t selling products to us so much as they are selling us to the products’ manufacturers. It works—what industry would spend $200 billion annually on something that doesn’t work? All we have to do is read the pages of advertising’s trade journals, where we see media ads proclaiming "Buy this 24-year-old and get all his friends absolutely free," or "We deliver Gen-X," or "One magazine delivers an audience spending $38 billion annually on American Express cards." It’s easy to see the underlying attitude that suggests that we use people as products and objects. This is the same mindset as pornography, and we are harmed in the same way by it.

So is Deadly Persuasion a source of despair? Only if you stop reading before the last chapter, where Kilbourne proposes a number of attitudinal and behavioral steps we can take. For example, therapists can begin to consciously weave cultural context into their treatment and use cultural activism as a therapeutic tool. We can begin to understand—and get our officials to understand—the addictive power of advertising as a public health problem. We can remember that free commercial speech is often the enemy of free civic speech (Oprah Winfrey was sued for millions by Texas cattlemen). We can get out there and raise some hell ourselves!

BELIEVE IT OR not, raising hell works. For example, my organization, Dads and Daughters, organized a letter and e-mail campaign against a Jewelry.com magazine ad showing a shirtless man and a nearly naked woman (with jewelry), apparently engaged in a sexual act. The ad’s slogan read: "Trust us, a food processor won’t get you there." We told the company how we objected to the message that women’s bodies were for sale (and that men ought to buy them), but only if the price is right. After one day of our protest, the company’s CEO e-mailed us to say they were dropping the ad.

In a similar vein, a coalition of women’s groups convinced Maidenform to drop its outrageous bra ad that read "Inner beauty only goes so far." If we want our culture to value our children’s souls more than their breast size, we have got to act up.

There are dozens of resources available to help in this fight. The Web site About Face (www.about-face.org) and organizations like the Center for Media Education (www.cme.org) have hundreds of ideas and resources. A new book by Margo Maine, Body Wars: Making Peace with Women’s Bodies, contains a long list of activist steps we can take to reclaim our personal integrity. We need those tools because, as Maine says, "Loving our bodies is a revolutionary act!"

A revolution is required. The remedy for addiction is freedom from the addiction. In the newspeak of advertising, words like freedom permeate ads for cigarettes and alcohol—our society’s most addictive drugs. Kilbourne names this big lie for what it is and challenges us to "redefine freedom, liberation, and rebellion in our own terms. We can turn these advertising messages inside out. We are free when we are not addicted, when we can be our real selves, when we are as healthy as possible in body and soul, when we are authentically sexual (which means loving and treasuring our imperfect bodies, as well as each other). We can and must unhook ourselves from the lure, the bait of advertising."

My only quibble with Kilbourne’s book is its subtitle. As a man, I came away from Deadly Persuasion with my eyes opened to the incredible price all of us pay for today’s advertising. The book is a call to arms for anyone who values the survival of anything from our planet to our individual souls. Media permeates every aspect of social action, and media exists to serve advertising. We cannot adequately seek justice without understanding this. Deadly Persuasion shows how.

JOE KELLY is executive director of the national nonprofit membership group Dads and Daughters (www.dadsanddaughters.org). The father of two daughters, he co-founded the award-winning (and advertising-free) magazine New Moon, which is edited by girls ages 8-14.

Deadly Persuasion: Why Women and Girls Must Fight the Addictive Power of Advertising. Kilbourne, Jean. Free Press, 1/1/99.

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