Changing an industry: Lunch with The Standard

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Lunch with The Standard : Jean Kilbourne, the campaigner for media literacy, tells DEPUTY EDITOR-IN-CHIEF ANNA YOUNG about her life and what pushes her to raise awareness about advertising.

A tall woman with a distinctively shiny brunette bob, Jean Kilbourne has a strong, measured voice, with a sense of humor to match. She uses this to get her points across without alienating her audience. Many men are accepting of her lectures – they still “appreciate the humor,” she said.

Kilbourne takes pictures with some of the students who attended her girls-only lunch meeting before grabbing a cup of grapes and sitting down for a one-on-one interview. Munching on one of the grapes (she offers me one first), she begins by talking about how she got interested in advertising.

Kilbourne was working putting ads into a medical journal in 1968 when she saw the ad that, as she described in the beginning of her book, Can’t Buy My Love, “changed my life.”
The ad was for birth control pills; the slogan argued that a woman’s mind works in weekdays. It showed a picture of a woman’s head with a box for each day of the week in it. Inside the boxes were household items like a laundry basket, an iron and a vacuum cleaner. “It was obviously a long time ago, but nobody was looking at things and saying, ‘Something’s really wrong here,’” Kilbourne says, her eyes widening as she describes the ad.

Kilbourne tells me about her youth, from her college years at Wellesley College to her modelling career in New York City, London and Paris. “After I graduated from Wellesley, I had to go to secretarial school to get a job,” she says. “Choices for women were really limited in those days, but the modelling didn’t feel good to me.”

“I felt like I was being objectified at first, but there wasn’t really a word for that at that point,” she says. “I also felt that it was superficial – it had nothing to do with my mind or who I was, so that was alienating, too. I think that had a lot to do with making me conscious of those issues. I started talking about the image of women as [a way of] making amends.”
Kilbourne worked as a high school English teacher for a few years after her modelling career ended. The teachers at her school noticed that she was teaching something different, and had her lecturing at the school and at other local schools soon after that.

“If anybody told me that I was going to have a career as a public speaker I’d have said, ‘Not likely,’” she chuckled to the group of girls at lunch. “The first time I went to a really large group, as I was driving there, I seriously considered driving off a road. Not to kill myself, but just to be incapacitated so I could call and say, ‘Sorry, can’t make it.’ The other thing I considered, which you could do in those days, was to call in and report a bomb scare. It wasn’t a good thing to do but it would’ve gotten me off the hook.”

After years of practice speaking in front of schools, conferences, the Members of Parliament in England and the Today Show’s and the Oprah Winfrey Show’s respective 20 million viewers, she has gotten used to public speaking. “My brother said to me, ‘Relax, Jean. The worst that can happen to you is that you’ll disgrace yourself in front of 20 million people,’” she told the group. “It amazes me now because I can get up in front of 3,000 people and my heart doesn’t even skip a beat.”

The reason Kilbourne got into speaking about advertising in the first place is to get others speaking about it. “The truth is that this stuff causes all of us an enormous amount of pain, and yet we tend to keep them to ourselves,” she says in my interview, biting into another grape. “So if we can start to talk about how all of these kinds of images make us feel and demystify them in that way, that’s a very important thing to do.”

Kilbourne also told the group about how her own daughter, Claudia, suffered from the advertising she was exposed to. “She hit adolescence and her self esteem just crashed. And one of the things that made me realize is that even though it’s incredibly important what parents do – and I felt that we had a good, solid relationship – that even so, you’re raising your child in a cultural environment, and I thought that I was playing off all of these constant negative cultural messages,” she said. “You cannot do it alone. You need support, and in an ideal world, society supports you, rather than make your life difficult.”

Kilbourne’s experience with her daughter highlighted the importance of the message she was sending about advertising. As she travelled to an increasing number of college campuses to lecture about the topic, she noticed the amount of advertisements for alcohol and tobacco. “They [alcohol and tobacco companies] were hiring people on campus and there was very little discussion about the downside of this, and I began looking at the alcohol ads and the tobacco ads,” she said.

She mentioned several times throughout the day – with the High School, with the female students and with me – that she started smoking when she was 13. “There were TV ads for tobacco all over the place. There were 50 percent of Americans smoking,” she shared with the girls. “It was totally normalized, and the tobacco industry had done everything in its power to suppress all the health information so that we didn’t get the health information, so there wasn’t a wise choice.”

As she started to pick up more information about alcohol and tobacco, Kilbourne added Advertising Alcohol: Calling the Shots and Pack of Lies: The Advertising of Tobacco to her series, s about women in the advertising industry.

Kilbourne’s favorite sign of success, though, isn’t the multiple awards she’s gotten for her books and movies. An all-girl rock band in Canada named themselves Kilbourne in her honor. It was the only thing her daughter, who was 16 at the time, was impressed by, she confides with a laugh.

Kilbourne tells me about the conversation she had with an older male magazine publisher who talked to her after she gave a presentation on women to him. “You know how you brace yourself for anything possible he was going to say? I was sort of doing this,” she says. “And he came up to me, and he just said, ‘You’ve just changed a lifetime’s thinking in one hour.’”

anna_young@asl.org