Student Affairs Lecture Series Concludes with Jean Kilbourne

News Story: March 1, 2009

The New York Times has called her one of the three most popular lecturers on college campuses in America. Indeed, Dr. Jean Kilbourne has spoken at nearly half of them, and her numerous documentaries on the impact of advertising have become staples in courses ranging from media studies to psychology to pop culture to women’s studies.

On March 23, she brought her powerful message to Sacred Heart University’s Edgerton Center for the Performing Arts. “The Naked Truth: Advertising’s Image of Women” drew an enthusiastic audience of hundreds of SHU students – almost entirely female. Her presentation included dozens of suggestive images culled from popular magazines, especially those geared to girls and women.

A case in point: A teenage girl is lying on her – perfectly flat -- stomach in tight jeans and high heels. The ad copy is direct: “He said the first thing he noticed about you was your personality. He lied.” Like many of the print ads that she shared with her audience, this one sends multiple messages, and just about all of them are disturbing.

First, it appeared in a teen magazine aimed at “aspiring” teenage girls: 12-year-olds in all probability. In Kilbourne’s analysis, it “sexualizes” young teens to sell a product – it was jeans this time – and works to persuade girls that their worth is measured not by their personalities or their minds but by how they look in their jeans. Further, it educates these young consumers that boys have only one thing on their minds even if they say otherwise.

The ad is one of about 3,000 that each of us encounters every single day, she explained, noting that we spend an average of two full years of our lives watching television commercials. You heard it right: that’s just the commercials! While most Americans insist that the ads don’t influence their decisions very much, there has to be some reason that the advertising business spends $200 billion a year educating us. And infants as young as six months can recognize corporate logos.

A doctor of education, Jean Kilbourne is a widely sought-after public speaker and has produced a number of powerful documentaries on the impact of advertising, especially on women. Her slide show was both instructive and unsettling and brought the audience face to face with the everyday experience of these “hidden persuaders.”

The final Student Affairs Lecture of the academic year, “The Naked Truth” was sponsored by the Kappa Delta Sorority, and at least three other sororities were active participants. Instead of the normal Q&A that typically follows such an address, this program concluded with an open discussion, led by Dr. Kilbourne and several SHU faculty members. Students were invited to share their own experiences of the Sacred Heart University culture and how it confirms or counters the images found in popular advertising.