Selling of Sex Draws a Crowd at Bellarmine

An example from Kilbourne's lecture on the glamorizing of tobacco in ads

Bellarmine University brought in advertising expert Jean Kilbourne last night (she’d given a similar talk at U of L the night before) to talk with students about the dangerous world of advertising.

Kilbourne is the real deal. Her resume includes a long list of citations in national media, her videos and books apparently sell very well, and she’s been called one of the three most popular lecturers on campuses across the U.S.

And why not? Her subject matter is of interest to college kids — sex, drugs and alcohol. But mostly sex, and the way advertisers use it to persuade you to do things you really shouldn’t do. About 300 students showed up last night, many likely motivated more by extra class credit than actual interest, but they got an eye-opening look at the seedier side of ads in the one-hour lecture.

None of this stuff surprised me — of course I knew that the marketers of alcohol, tobacco and drugs make their products appear to be glamorous, despite the fact that they often have an opposite effect. Kilbourne confirmed what I knew — that smokers get the addiction early on, 13 is the most likely age to start — and that a majority of their marketing efforts target young people. And of course advertisers objectify women and persuade them to focus on their looks.

She had some great examples in her slide show – especially of the subtle way alcohol advertisers suggest that their products will lead to sexual encounters. There were also plenty of examples of the way advertisers, especially those marketing food and diet products, present models who are unnaturally thin. That every image you see is photo-shopped Kilbourne presents as a given — it’s done on everyone from Katie Couric to Cindy Crawford.

(NOTE: I took at 13-year-old son, Luke, who found the presentation “not that boring.”)

But Kilbourne, who has produced volumes of books and film on the topic, is fighting a losing cause. Tobacco marketers know that they have to replace their dying customers with new smokers, that their product is bought in large numbers by the poor and uneducated, that getting Hollywood movie-makers to feature actors smoking is a key to the glamorous image they’re projecting.

She says she’s not out to outlaw the products, explaining she’s a former smoker who had a tough time quitting. But she wants advertisers to change their methods and quit making it seem so cool to smoke and drink and be unnaturally skinny.

I guess Kilbourne would like to say these practices legislated away, or to have societal pressure give the ad creators a conscience. But the bottom line is that the advertising works and fuels sales.