The Journal of the Unitarian Universalist Association

Deadly Persuasion:
The Addictive Power of Advertising
By Jean Kilbourne
New York: Free Press, 1999. $25

Reviewed by Mary Pipher

Book Review January/February 2000

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As a young woman, Jean Kilbourne was brilliant (with a perfect score on the verbal part of the SAT), well-educated, and ambitious. But after graduating from Wellesley, she could only find secretarial jobs or work for employers who wanted sexual favors. Eventually she created her own work—deconstructing advertising. Many of us first encountered Kilbourne in her electrifying film Killing Us Softly, which changed forever the way we viewed ads about women. But later Kilbourne expanded her analysis to include such things as how ads affect our values, relationships, and commitments to civic life.

In her new book Deadly Persuasion: The Addictive Power of Advertising, she debunks the idea that any of us is uninfluenced by advertising. Ads succeed so well, she writes, precisely because we don’t think they’re working on us. She reports that average Americans see over 3,000 ads per day and spend over three years of their lives watching tv commercials whose messages work their way inside our intimate relationships, our homes, our hearts, and our heads. As a result, she argues, our culture increasingly has adopted what John Maynard Keynes called “the values of the casino,” whereby, Kilbourne writes, “relationships flounder and addictions flourish.” The addict is, after all, the ideal consumer, and when an addict gets well, someone loses money.

Kilbourne demonstrates how ads encourage us to objectify each other and to believe that our most significant relationships are with products. By implying that happiness comes from products, advertisers exploit our real human desire for connection, calm, respect, and excitement, leaving us romantic about objects and deeply cynical about humans, who are after all, much more complicated than products. (“Who says guys are afraid of commitment?” one ad inquires. “He’s had the same backpack for years.”) Over and over, ads tell us that human relationships are fragile, difficult, and disappointing but that products won’t let us down. (“The ski instructor faded away three years ago, but the sweater didn’t.”) “Ads turn lovers into things and things into lovers,” as Kilbourne succinctly puts it.

Because of their impressionability, children, of course, are advertisers’ favorite target. Twenty years ago, kids drank twice as much milk as soda. Thanks to ads, today the reverse is true. Both alcohol and cigarette companies target young children as consumers (Joe Camel, Spuds MacKenzie, and the Budweiser frogs are all aimed at kids) and sell them sugary, fruit-flavored “entry-level” drinks like Mrs. Pucker’s Alcoholic Orangeade and Tumblers, a 24-proof version of jello shots.

Whatever point Kilbourne argues she backs up with vivid examples, including pictures of ads. When she argues that ads distort women’s relationships to food, she follows with ads for Payday candy bars (“If you don’t like your payday, try ours”) or macaroni and cheese (“Oh baby, where have you been all my life?”). When she explains that ads take advantage of our anxieties to sell us products, she cites a towel ad that uses the late actor James Dean (“Some people are born with charisma; others just buy it”).

Kilbourne’s arguments are as focused and unassailable as those of a good prosecutor. Piece by piece, she builds a case that America has been deeply corrupted by advertisers. She sums up the message of advertising by parodying Kris Kristofferson: “Freedom’s just another word for something else to buy.” Ads lead us, she says, to expect transformation via products. They portray work, on the other hand, as a drag, self-analysis as ridiculous, and adulthood as desperately to be avoided. They mock civic action, as in the Miller beer ad that says, “Scientists predict global warming” and then shows a six-pack and adds, “No problem.” She points out that ads also steer us away from what really makes us happy— “meaningful work, authentic relationships, and a sense of connection with history, community, nature and the cosmos.”

Kilbourne wants to change the world, and she doesn’t apologize for it. She argues for things like turn-off-your-television week, consumer boycotts and letter-writing campaigns, and national groups like Annenberg School professor George Gerbner’s Cultural Environmental Movement. While she allows that ads don’t cause all our problems, she does argue that they give us an environment where bad choices are constantly reinforced. Her book sounds the call for a new protest era. I for one am ready to march.

Mary Pipher’s most recent book is Another Country: Navigating the Emotional Terrain of Our Elders (Riverhead, 1999) (See p. 30). She belongs to the Unitarian Church of Lincoln, NE.

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