Can’t Buy My Love: How Advertising Changes the Way We Think and Feel
by Jean Kilbourne
Genre: non-fiction, social science, media studies, advertising, feminism, psychology
Many advertisements these days make us feel as if we have an intimate, even passionate relationship with a product. But as Jean Kilbourne points out in this fascinating and shocking expose, the dreamlike promise of advertising always leaves us hungry for more. We can never be satisfied, because the products we love cannot love us back.
Drawing upon her knowledge of psychology, media, and women’s issues, Kilbourne offers nothing less than a new understanding of a ubiquitous phenomenon in our culture. The average American is exposed to over 3,000 advertisements a day and watches three years’ worth of television ads over the course of a lifetime. Kilbourne paints a gripping portrait of how this barrage of advertising drastically affects young people, especially girls, by offering false promises of rebellion, connection, and control. She also offers a surprising analysis of the way advertising creates and then feeds an addictive mentality that often continues throughout adulthood.
I first found Jean Kilbourne’s research a few years ago when I saw her documentary – Killing Us Softly 4. I used her ideas and research for a class project. Fifteen minutes wasn’t enough time to highlight all points Kilbourne raises and cover the objectification of men in any depth as well, so I focused on the effects fashion and beauty industry had on my high-school’s female population. The links with overly idealised, photoshoped portrayals of women and rising bulimia and anorexia numbers I could see among my peers was something I could talk about as a woman. But I did ask my male peers about their own experiences of objectification and idealisation of male bodies, so I wasn’t harping on about women being the only victims of stupid beauty standards; because they most certainly are not.
Can’t Buy My Love is not a book solely about objectification of bodies in advertising. No, it covers the topic but it is also a book about the connection of alcohol and tobacco advertising with addiction levels in society, portrayal of men and women as sexual and romantic partners, about food and products taking the place of our friends and partners. It talks about the portrayal of violence in fashion, the normalisation of asocial and dangerous behaviour, escapism, the cooption of social movements and revolutions… about the way advertising perverts messages and forms new ones. I found the analysis of women’s magazines especially apt – they are downright schizophrenic. One page about super fast-working diets and suffering for fashion, the other about sinful but heavenly sweets telling you to ‘enjoy the moment’, ’pamper yourself’, and ‘experience the orgasm of good taste’. *headdesk*
Kilbourne raises one good point after another – she will make you think about the way ads are structured, how the message is read by the target audience and other people, how it affects children, what it says about normal or desirable behaviour, and just why we should care about advertising. Some examples she shows us are just horrible and scary, which makes it clear that EU has done at least one good thing by restricting advertising, especially ads targeted at children. US advertising examples (most of them contemporary) made me realize how easy we had it growing up – no tobacco ads, limited alcohol ads, and no disgustingly sexualized ads. We still have a number of crazy beauty industry ads touting anti-aging products and other ‘miracle’ solutions but you can’t win all battles. What is far more helpful than taking on an entire industry is to educate children and teens on how ads work and what to be mindful of. And this book can serve as a starting point.
After reading this book, further research into advertising industry and the way it shapes our society is in order for the interested. What we must understand is that we aren’t just passive receptors of advertising messages – we deconstruct them and form our own reading of the images and messages. But critical reading of ads demands some mileage in common sense, and a good grasp of how culture and psychology intersect. Therefore tackling issues in segments is in order. Kilbourne structures her book into chapter dealing with one issue at the time – one shows us how addiction is normalized, the other how stable personal relationships are portrayed as old-fashioned. If it weren’t so messed up, the ads’ romance with food would be hilarious. The most long run damage is caused by normalising the immediate fulfilment of our impulses and desires. This constant need for new things (and relationships, and people) is unhealthy.
A book I heartily recommend.