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Bella English

Educator Jean Kilbourne is honored for her work on advertising’s toxic portrayal of women

Jean Kilbourne sees signs of progress, and that gives her hope.Rick Bern

If you, like me, push the “mute” button during TV commercials or avoid fashion mags because the messages are so sexist, stupid, and offensive, you have Jean Kilbourne to thank. For the past 40-something years, Kilbourne has been chronicling and pointing out the toxic effects of advertising on the image of women and girls, which, as she has shown through her books, lectures, and videos, leads to violence against women, depression, eating disorders, and low self-esteem.

“It’s profitable for advertisers when we feel terrible about ourselves,” Kilbourne says in her series of films: “Killing Us Softly: Advertising’s Image of Women,” now in its fourth updated version. Advertising also influences how men view real women compared with the ultra-thin models splayed in sexual poses, she says: “Men judge real women much more harshly.”


You don’t know whether to laugh or cry over some of the images that Kilbourne began collecting in the late 1960s. In one cigarette ad, a sexy woman smoking a cigarette says: “My boyfriend said he loved me for my mind. I’ve never been so insulted in my life.”


Kilbourne, 72, has been named to the National Women’s Hall of Fame, one of 10 women nationwide honored by the nonprofit this year. Fittingly, the Hall is located in Seneca Falls, N.Y., scene of the first women’s rights convention, in 1848. Kilbourne grew up in Hingham and has lived in West Newton for 30 years.

One other Boston-area woman, Dr. Tenley Albright of Brookline, was also named to the Hall this year, and they join 256 others, including Abigail Adams and Maya Angelou.

The judges cited Kilbourne’s groundbreaking work on the connection between advertising and public health issues: “She has transformed the way in which organizations and educational institutions around the world address the prevention of many public health problems including smoking, high-risk drinking, eating disorders, obesity, the sexualization of children, and violence against women.”


Kilbourne graduated in 1964 from Wellesley College, where she studied with author May Sarton. She had to attend secretarial school before she could get a job.

In 1965, she moved to London to work as a secretary at the BBC, a job she found tedious. “But I got to live in London when London was cheap,” she says. She also modeled for a while, which introduced her to the world of body image. “I felt very objectified,” she says. “There was a lot of sexual harassment.”

She returned to Boston — after dating “a very sweet” Ringo Starr a couple of times — where she got her master’s degree and PhD in education at Boston University. She taught at Norwell High School and then Emerson College. In 1968, she started clipping what she considered soul-killing ads and stuck them on her refrigerator door.

Then she began putting together slide shows and lectures on the images, which was considered radical at the time, but mainstream now, thanks to her work. “Killing Us Softly,” which first came out in 1979 and cost $6,000 to make, has grossed millions of dollars and is used in schools around the world. Its bottom line: Media literacy must be taught in order to combat the images that bombard us daily.

“It’s worse now for teenage girls than when my daughter was a teenager 10 years ago,” she says, referring to 28-year-old Claudia, her only child. “There’s more pressure on women today to be beautiful, thin, hot, sexy, and young.”


She attributes part of that to technology, which can Photoshop images of “perfect women.” We’ve never really seen these women, because they are air-brushed, slenderized, and sexualized, with added or reduced cleavage. Suggestive ads, Kilbourne believes, create a climate of violence against women.

What gives her hope, then?

“I’m no longer alone out there,” she says, referring to other critics of such advertising. “And there are some signs of progress.” Some European countries have put a stop to using anorexic models, and media literacy is being taught in more schools. She still receives hundreds of letters and e-mails from fans, many of them young people. One, which arrived earlier this month, began: “I’m pretty sure that your work has saved my life in many ways.”

Kilbourne has also targeted alcohol and tobacco advertising, two subjects near to her heart. Depressed about losing her mother, she drank and smoked heavily. She’s been sober 39 years now. She started smoking when she was 13, and was 40 when she quit.

“Quitting smoking was so much harder than quitting drinking,” she says. Both industries continue to humanize their products to be “your best friend.” But just telling kids to quit smoking and drinking doesn’t work because, of course, they think they’re immortal.

So what Kilbourne does with her slide shows and lectures is show them how they’re being manipulated by the industries. “It appeals to their antiauthoritarianism,” she says. “No one had done that before.”


Noting that 90 percent of smokers start before they are 18, she says: “Tobacco kills half the people who use it, and they’re targeting children. Tobacco has to get 3,000 kids to start smoking every single day just to replace the people who die or quit.”

Tobacco executives have called her all sorts of names, from misguided zealot to self-promoting nuisance. The alcohol industry has called her a “neo-prohibitionist,” but Kilbourne says she’s just trying to raise awareness.

“Binge drinking is still a huge problem for young people, particularly young women,” she says.

Last summer, Duke University acquired Kilbourne’s collection, hauling 54 boxes out of the Victorian she shares with her rescue dog, Scout. “It’s lovely that they have it,” she says.

She smiles. “It’s all being funded by tobacco money.” The Duke family fortune was made in the tobacco trade.

Bella English writes from Milton. She can be reached at english@globe.com.