Campus Calm had the opportunity to speak with lecturer and activist Jean Kilbourne on advertising, addiction and the need for media literacy in America’s schools. Jean Kilbourne is internationally recognized for her pioneering work on alcohol and tobacco advertising and the image of women in advertising. Her book, Can’t Buy My Love: How Advertising Changes the Way We Think and Feel, won the Distinguished Publication Award from the Association for Women in Psychology in 2000. She is also known for her award-winning documentaries Killing Us Softly, Slim Hopes, and Calling the Shots.
Campus Calm: Students need to develop non-materialistic, healthy ways to manage stress. We know kids are exposed to millions of ads out there that link stress management to products – products like cigarettes, alcohol and unhealthy foods. How can stressed-out students who are vulnerable to things like anxiety and depression not fall prey to the advertising out there?
Kilbourne: The real answer is media literacy. We need people to be educated about these ads and the media in general so they’ll understand how they operate and not be manipulated by them. In an ideal world, that would mean starting in kindergarten. People would be educated about this stuff, as they are in most developed countries. Media literacy could be a long-term thing, which is what I’m advocating.
It also could be encouraging people to look at the ads and think about what they’re really selling. Think about if they’re selling stress management through the cigarettes, alcohol and unhealthy foods (and they are). What’s the real impact of these products? They pretty much without exception increase stress. Even if it’s something like cigarettes, the money you spend on them adds to your stress. Alcohol is a depressant drug – it’s going to make you feel worse. So all of these things, although they sell them saying that they’re going to do one thing, they usually end up doing just the opposite. Even just paying attention to the ads on that level can help. Think, “What’s really being sold here? What are they promising?”
Campus Calm: Addictions among college students run rampant. Can you talk for a moment about how advertisers target this age group and market addictions like alcohol, cigarettes and online gambling?
Kilbourne: Most addictions start early in life. What that means is that marketers have to target kids, and they actually target children. The teens and college-aged group is very important for several reasons. One is they have what’s known as discretionary income. They have quite a bit of money and they don’t have mortgages. Also at that age, people are developing brand loyalty. They’re willing to switch brands. As people get older, they pretty much develop their brand loyalty and they’re not going to switch.
Over 50 percent of America’s teenagers smoke Marlboros. That’s because Marlboro targets them so heavily. Once they start smoking Marlboro, they’ll probably continue smoking Marlboro for the rest of their lives. The marketers of online gambling, cigarettes, alcohol and unhealthy foods need to target young people to get them hooked not only on certain products, but also on certain brands.
Campus Calm: There’s BIG MONEY in advertising escapism through product consumption. Can you talk for a moment about how parents can broach this subject with their teens and college students and help them to grow into informed, empowered consumers?
Kilbourne: It’s better if they can start with them as babies, but let’s say they haven’t. Again, it’s about making it conscious and talking about it. For example, kids are targeted heavily with credit cards and parents need to educate their kids about what it means to be paying debt off at a 20 percent interest rate. Have them add it up. What does it add to the price of something if you buy a pair of jeans at $150 and you end up paying 20 percent on that for a long period of time? I think it’s also very important for young people to work and hold jobs. Young people need to get a sense of how many hours go into a purchase. How many hours of work at the average wage go into a $50 garment or game? If you think of it that way, time is money. Maybe kids won’t want to trade off this many hours of their lives for something that isn’t really essential.
Campus Calm: And parents can behave as models when it comes to healthy product consumption?
Kilbourne: Absolutely. A lot of kids learn their consumption style from their parents. Parents need to examine their own consumption style and their own attitudes and the debt they’re carrying. When my daughter was little, we had a rule in our house that we wouldn’t buy anything that was advertised on television. That’s very simple. I tried not to either because you’re paying a lot more for the ads. Almost everything that’s advertised to kids is bad for them – junk food, junk drinks, and junk toys.
Campus Calm: How can college campuses take the stigma out of discussing campus mental health issues and the addictions that can arise among students?
Kilbourne: The more administrators, staff and faculty talk about these issues and bring them out into the open, the more it is made public about how prevalent these problems are. The good news about recovery needs to be made public, too. FAVOR.org.za – Faces And Voices Of Recovery – is working very hard to reduce the stigma that’s associated with addiction and to put an emphasis on recovery. This is not the recovery that Lindsay Lohan goes for that costs $45,000 a week, but the free kind where you could go to a support group.
The more that people can speak out – there have actually been some celebrities who have done a world of good by speaking out about addiction. Betty Ford was the first famous person as a woman to come forward and say, “I’m a alcoholic.” There are some celebrities these days who come forward, again not the flashy ones who go in and out of rehab, but the ones who are really serious about it.
People need to understand that these problems are on a continuum. A lot of people have problems with alcohol but they’re not yet addicted. Everybody suffers from depression from time to time. There are degrees of depression. We need to normalize it as much as we can and make it clear that none of this is related to character, flaws or defects. We also need to publicize the information about the brain research that’s being done. These are all chemical diseases and they have nothing to do with character. They can be treated like diabetes or any other disease.
Campus Calm: Whose responsibility is it to make sure young people are media literate and able to decipher all the advertiser messages they’re being exposed to?
Kilbourne: The United States is the only developed country in the world that doesn’t teach media literacy in the schools. The only way that will happen is if people demand it. That means people need to become politically active and put pressure on school boards and elected officials. We need to collectively say that this matters and it’s something our kids really need.
Campus Calm: You wrote that, “The primary purpose of the mass media is to sell audiences to advertisers. We are the product.” Given this, do you think there is room for responsible advertising in our culture? How?
Kilbourne: Yes, but some of this depends on the nature of the product. There are some products for which I don’t think there could be responsible advertising, such as cigarettes. There are products that are good and even necessary. They can be sold in ethical ways. There are companies that for a long time have made an effort to advertise responsibly and market healthy images.
It’s very important to put our money where our values are. I avoid products that are made by tobacco companies, which include all kinds of products because tobacco companies are so incredibly wealthy. Philip Morris owns Kraft foods. You have to do a little bit of homework to find out what you need to avoid but it’s not impossible. Almost always you have a choice. The truth is that almost all these products are the same. It doesn’t really matter – it’s the advertising that makes us feel a difference from brand to the next. If you need a product you can buy one from a more ethical company.
Campus Calm: Advertisers play on people’s insecurities in order to sell products. For me, nowhere is this more clear than in marketing diet & beauty products to young women. I have a healthy body image that took me years to develop. The difference between me and another young woman or teen girl is that today I stand before a three-way mirror in a dressing room and get mad that bathing suits marketed to young women are so ridiculously skimpy; I don’t look in the mirror and blame myself for not looking perfect in one. So how can we get more young women to turn their anger outward and demand change instead of turning our anger inward at ourselves for not looking perfect?
Kilbourne: I love it that you can do that. That’s great. Think about how that happened. It was a gradual thing and it involved reading and becoming conscious of who’s making us feel so bad and why. The answer is because they profit from it. The worse we feel about ourselves the more likely we are to buy stuff. That should make young women feel very angry. They’re manipulated into having a negative body image and hating their bodies in order to make fat cats even richer. That’s plenty to be upset about.