Jean Kilbourne has a special message for ‘Last Frontier’ Alaskans

September 16, 2013

Jean Kilbourne

Feminist and media literacy expert Jean Kilbourne will deliver a free, public talk Tuesday, Sept. 17 at 7 p.m. in the Wendy Williamson Auditorium.

Kilbourne has a special message for Alaskans: Because of our strong attachment to frontier freedoms and a sense of ourselves as being independent and even libertarian, we struggle to see our social problems as community problems.

Those social problems include obesity, alcoholism, smoking, domestic violence, eating disorders.

“It can be hard to get people to move past thinking that these problems are the fault of the individual,” she says, some form of weakness or a lack of personal responsibility.

The mind shift required, Kilbourne says, is realizing that the entire environment contributes to the problem, and the whole community is affected. Take underage and or excessive drinking as an example.

“Maybe you don’t drink to excess. However, you are subject to the problems of excessive drinking—the car crashes, assaults, public expense to deal with the problem.”

And what contributes to the problem? “We have to look at the whole environment, the bars in a community, the happy hour pricing. What role are they playing?”

Half a century of evidence

Back in the 1960s, Kilbourne began ripping advertisements out of magazines and sticking them on her refrigerator. She saw connections between the way women were being portrayed in product advertisement and how it affected their self image.

Only thin is beautiful, say the glossy magazine ads. As the public—particularly young girls and women—imitate, eating disorders surface.

Another example: Young people have fun when they drink and smoke, say alcohol and cigarette ads targeted at them. Kilbourne points out that the most heavily advertised cigarette, Marlboro, also sells more than any other brand. She points out that websites selling alcohol have usurped arenas that are popular with young people — beer sites will have music and sports channels to draw an audience, and then mingle alcohol ads into the mix.

Her research stuns with details. Cigarettes kill more people than all other drugs combined.  In fact, more than car crashes, homicides, suicides and AIDS. Annually 440,000 deaths are attributed to cigarettes. The tobacco industry spends $9 billion annually just to advertise in the United States.

Returning to Alaska

Jean Kilbourne

Jean Kilbourne

Kilbourne has presented at health conferences in Alaska a number of times. She’s familiar with the “frontier mentality,” a libertarian attitude that tends to elevate the individual and minimize community responsibility.

“We say we don’t want a ‘nanny state,'” she says. “Big corporations love that. Industries are profiting on the other side.” And that would be industries like fast food and snack food, cigarettes and alcohol. In the case of domestic violence, she points to advertising that objectifies women, making it easier to diminish them. That would be advertising that uses sex to sell excitement, from cars to travel to clothing.

Kilbourne would like to give the independent-minded Alaskan another way to think about this. She wishes they were more aware of the manipulation at work. “Our main education about alcohol comes from industry advertisements,” she says. Their role is to sell their product, not explain health hazards.

Some audiences are catching on, Kilbourne says. While college campus binge drinking gets widespread coverage in the media, some young people have come to resent the heavy-handed messaging they see and feel targeted by. They can respond by drinking responsibly, rejecting expensive, mass-produced fashion, learning how to cook so they can eat healthy and more cheaply, and deciding for themselves how to have fun without relying on advertisements to define it for them.

Kilbourne’s message resonates with college students; she has become among the top three most popular speakers on university campuses.

Support for the message

Dr. Joy Mapaye, an assistant professor in the Journalism and Public Communications Department with a specific emphasis on strategic communications, said she was glad to see Kilbourne’s appearance at UAA. She first became aware of Kilbourne’s contributions while an undergraduate at Washington State University, where she saw Kilbourne’s video, “Killing Me Softly,” about how advertising depicts women. She later used the video as a JPC professor at UAA.

Recently, Mapaye has been working with a student group that is advocating for a smoke-free campus. Troubling statistics roll off her tongue.

“Nearly nine out of 10 smokers started smoking by age 18, and 99 percent started by age 26,” Mapaye said.

As Kilbourne argues, the tobacco industry needs to continually recruit new smokers to replace those who quit or die. According to a fact sheet on the Surgeon General’s website, 1,200 people each day die due to smoking. For each of those deaths, at least two youth or young adults become regular daily users.

Another startling fact: Almost no one starts to smoke after age 26. That means prevention information ideally needs to be targeted to those 18-25.

“This is the ‘health’ campus,” Mapaye said. “Let’s be leaders.”

Mapaye was adamant about her support for advertising. “Not all advertising is bad,” she said, citing the public service announcements that surface to counter commercial marketing. She cites the work of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the Ad Council’s “Buzzed Driving is Drunk Driving” campaign.

Kilbourne points out that the budget for and volume of government-supported or other health-conscious PSAs  are miniscule compared to the amount of money advertisers invest in hooking lifetime smokers and drinkers.

“Not all advertising IS bad,” Kilbourne concurs. However, “It plays a huge role in our cultural environment. Where do we learn what is normal behavior, what is expected.”

In the absence of independent information, that could be coming mostly from advertising, she says.

Kilbourne’s talk on Tuesday will look closely at how alcohol and cigarettes are advertised to the public. To see the full range of her concentration areas, visit her website and explore her videos, reports and news coverage.

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