Jhally, Sut., and Jean Kilbourne. Killing Us Softly 4: Advertising’s Image of Women. Northampton, MA: Media Education Foundation, 2010.
(Portions of this can also be found here but to view the full film, you have to get it from the library)
In the documentary discussion, Jean Kilbourne reflects on the history of advertising and the way it portrays women throughout the twentieth century. She began studying advertising in the 1960s, making films to document her findings in the 1970s, 1980s, 2000s, and again in 2010. While some of the themes of the ads have changed over time, they have mostly presented women in degrading or sexualized ways in order to appeal either to men’s or to women’s beliefs about what a woman should be.
Advertising is a $250 billion per year industry and an “educational force” as the average American is exposed to over 3,000 ads every single day. While many people claim that they “don’t pay attention to ads,” Kilbourne argues that advertising’s effects are subtle and subconscious. Advertisements “sell normalcy.” This has been the case throughout the twentieth century. Advertisements have been increasingly used to show women in their “ideal” roles, but it has perhaps said even more about the value of the female body to society and what it’s purpose should be. From advertisements, past and present, it is apparent that a woman’s body contributes to her success in everything from finding and keeping employment to finding and keeping a husband. Women’s bodies are sexualized, making it seem “normal” for women and men to see women primarily as sexual objects. While ads still target women in traditional feminine roles such as mother, other ads show women in a primarily sexual context. This sexualized message has perhaps been worsened as women have been made into objects, quite literally, in advertising. Parts of the female body has also been separated from the person as a whole, also sending the message that women’s bodies and body parts are more enticing and valuable than their whole self. Some of these messages are played out in the following ads from throughout the twentieth century until today.
This advertisement showed that the woman’s looks enticed and amazed her husband. Even if she had been working, he seems to be most interested in how she appeared, rather than what she had done. This ad also associated the meaning of being a good wife with being “cute” to one’s husband (and also eating vitamins).
This advertisement not only emphasized the woman’s body but also suggested that women themselves were primarily concerned with appearance, as the woman was apparently preoccupied with this shoe. Laying on the ground, undressed, the words of the advertisement suggest that women occupied a simple, lowly place which men could manipulate by buying women shoes.
While this advertisement encouraged women to gain weight, it told them that men would not be pleased with them or desire to be around them if they did not find them attractive. In this case, the woman in the ad’s social life was obviously inhibited because of her body, promoting the idea that women should change their bodies in order to please men or in order to fit a certain aesthetic.
Lysol was supposedly both a feminine cleaning agent but also perhaps a euphemism for birth control, which was referred to as “feminine hygiene.” According to the Smithsonian magazine, Lysol was the “best-selling method of contraception during the Great Depression” and up until the early 1960s. In either case, this advertisement showed that women who did not practice good “feminine hygiene” by properly maintaining their (inherently bad) bodies would be responsible for a broken marriage or family.
This advertisement sent a clear message to women that men would not be interested in them if they did not have smooth, soft skin. While men might neglect women who did not appear flawless, they would also be “so proud” of the woman who was constantly working on her body and appearance to appease him. The mother in this ad was to admonish her daughter to improve herself in order to win a man.
This advertisement also sent a message that women need to be constantly vigilant in their appearance and body. Even the woman’s expression in the advertisement reveals the anxieties that women felt about nearly every aspect of the bodies (which many women still do) and showed that women’s bodies were directly related to their ability to have successful relationships and lives.
This ad sent a powerful message that there is no value in life for women who cannot maintain their hair or their appearance. If a woman didn’t fit popular standards of beauty, what hope did she have in the world? Essentially, this ad boils the essence of a woman down to her appearance, and if she fails in some way in her appearance, she fails overall, as well. The advertisement makes it seem normal, as they claim “we overheard that plaint.”
This advertisement assumed that a woman’s two primarily concerns were her house and her weight.
This advertisement sent its message to women clearly: men will not look at you if your body is not perfect. While some ads helped women lose weight, others demanded they gain it, suggesting that women were expected to change and that what men were looking for was very specific and narrow.
These two advertisements show women disconnected from their bodies, symbolizing that they were objects to collect, admire, and use for “excitement and conversation.”
This ad brings in the generational aspect of women’s bodies. The implication of this ad was that a good mother would help a daughter to also fit the beauty ideal. It is also important that no matter what your age as a woman, you are maintaining your body”size.”
This ad shows women’s bodies as a “real cool treat” that is “meltingly feminine.” The ad naturally draws viewers to think of food and the implication is that women and their bodies should be enjoyed as one might enjoy a popsicle. Women should also present themselves this way. Women “dream” of becoming a sweet, desirable “treat.”
This advertisement is for the same Palmolive soap that the first advertisement on this page showed. The implication of this ad would suggest that women who are not using this soap to maintain a beautiful condition will have husbands who regret marrying them. Women need to be constant and vigilant when it came to maintaining their bodies to satisfy their husbands. A woman who did not embrace her duty to physical beauty could not be a good wife.
This advertisement also showed that boys were constantly evaluating women’s and girl’s bodies and that if they did not fit the ideal body type they would not find success.
This advertisement suggested that women who are a “normal healthy, underweight person” would likely be “ashamed of your skinny, scrawny figure.” The add show men staring at the now-curvy woman who has apparently added “glamorous curves” to her figure.
This advertisement sexualizes women with nude images that perhaps attempt to compare experience of the speaker system to having four naked women in one room. The images of the woman have seemingly nothing to do with the actual product that is being advertised, yet she is portrayed alluringly. This demonstrates the popular belief that sex sells and that women were the object and symbol of sex.
This advertisement sends the popular message that women must allure and “trap” men with their bodies. It also suggests that a woman’s natural body would not be enough to do that. A woman must have something to “push up,” “push in,” and “pad” them. As Jean Kilbourne says in “Killing Us Softly,” “Society sends a message to girls that they must live up to unbelievable standards while at the same time telling them that they are going to fail.”
While many of the messages about women’s bodies showed the woman’s body as the staple of a male-female relationship, this advertisement tells women that their appearance affects other aspects of their life, as well, such as employment. This sends the message to women that they must be conscious of their appearance at all times and should not expect to be taken seriously if they do not look beautiful.
While advertising is largely created to market and sell, it also demonstrates wider cultural ideas meant to appeal to a prospective customer audience. These ads, show how women’s bodies have been portrayed and understood throughout the twentieth century and allow us to consider how these ideologies continue to influence perspectives in the present.