A Review of Can’t Buy My Love

NPN’s Jendi Reiter reviews Jean Kilbourne, Can’t Buy My Love: How Advertising Changes the Way We Think and Feel. This book was published by Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, New York City (1999). Ms. Kilbourne’s documentaries are distributed by Northampton’s own Media Education Foundation.

Activist filmmaker and educator Jean Kilbourne has been internationally recognized for such documentaries as “Killing Us Softly: Advertising’s Images of Women”. She has spent three decades studying how advertising affects our self-image and perpetuates addictive behavior. Can’t Buy My Love takes a critical look at the messages we take for granted in the ads that surround us, which promise a false individuality and liberation through consumption of mass-produced commodities, and encourage us to seek lasting relationships with products instead of people. Kilbourne unmasks the coded language that alcohol and tobacco companies use to exploit the distorted thinking of their core customers, the addicts.

Although Kilbourne focuses on mainstream media images rather than adult entertainment, this book is relevant to the porn debate in several ways.

Anyone who thinks porn is “just images”, and therefore harmless, should remember the billions of dollars that companies spend on advertising to shape people’s desires and worldview. Clearly, the makers of beer, ice cream, and luxury automobiles have found that unreflectively consumed images and slogans can train people to believe that relaxation, friendship, self-nurturing or empowerment are just one more purchase away. Kilbourne observes that advertising works because we think we are too hip to take it seriously. We’d like to believe the media has no effect on us, because otherwise we’d have to face how thoroughly Madison Avenue has exploited our insecurities.

Cynicism is one of the worst effects of advertising. Cynicism learned from years of being exposed to marketing hype and products that never deliver the goods often carries over to other aspects of life. This starts early: A study of children done by researchers at Columbia University in 1975 found that heavy viewing of advertising led to cynicism, not only about advertising, but about life in general. (p.66)

Like advertising, porn takes our libido and diverts it from interpersonal relationships into a false intimacy with an object. Both forms of media define freedom in ways that are essentially selfish, irresponsible and immature. As long as we keep believing its hollow promises, the advertised product’s inability to deliver lasting satisfaction creates an ever-escalating demand for more consumption, in the same way that habitual porn users begin to crave more hardcore and shocking images. Kilbourne writes:

I believe there is a connection between the throwaway world of advertising and today’s throwaway approach to marriage. All too often our market-driven culture hooks people into adolescent fantasies of sex and relationships. And there is a connection between the constant images of instant sexual gratification and passion and the increasing burden on marriage and long-term lovers… (p.25)

As the products (and stores and fast-food restaurants and airlines and phone companies) are portrayed as ever more intensely alive, we are encouraged to feel that we are in relationships with them, to feel passion for our products rather than our partners. “The right dress is like the right guy,” says an ad featuring a couple embracing. “You love it more when you get home.” A facial care line is advertised as “the most exciting thing to happen to your face since your first kiss.” “Oh my goodness!” proclaims an ad featuring a bottle of Coca-Cola. “You should’ve seen this one…tall, dark and cooler than cool. I had to pick it up.” The overt eroticism of this ad is no coincidence, of course. The bottle has even worked up a sweat!

After all, it is easier and considerably safer to love a product than a person. Relationships with human beings are messy, unpredictable, often uncomfortable, sometimes dangerous. “When was the last time you felt this comfortable in a relationship?” asks an ad for sneakers. Our sneakers never have bad moods or ask us to wash the dishes or tell us we’re getting fat. Even more important, products don’t betray or abandon us….

Taken individually, these ads are silly, sometimes funny, certainly nothing to worry about. But cumulatively they create a climate of cynicism and alienation that is poisonous to relationships. Many people end up feeling romantic about material objects yet deeply cynical about human beings. In a society in which one of two marriages ends in divorce, we are offered constancy through our products. As one ad says, “Some people need only one man. Or one woman. Or one watch.” Okay, so we can’t be monogamous–at least we can be faithful to our watches. Because of the pervasiveness of this kind of advertising message, we learn from childhood that it is far safer to make a commitment to a product than to a person, far easier to be loyal to a brand. Ad after ad portrays our real lives and relationships as dull and ordinary, and commitment to human beings as something to be avoided. (pp.84-85)

These are the same relationship myths one finds in so many porn-film scenarios. Defenders of porn often see themselves as countercultural in their rejection of marriage and their celebration of hedonism, but big business would like nothing better than to see this supposedly liberal attitude spread.

Kilbourne’s analysis also helps explain why some men will let healthy sexual relationships with real wives and girlfriends deteriorate rather than give up porn. Exposure to advertising has taught them that relationships don’t last anyway, but products are forever.

Advertising, a key component of our consumerist culture, constantly exhorts us to be in a never-ending state of excitement, never to tolerate boredom or disappointment, to focus on ourselves, never to delay gratification, to believe that passionate sex is more important than anything else in life, and always to trade in old things for new. These messages are a kind of blueprint for how to destroy an intimate relationship.

How are we supposed to understand that all long-term relationships go through periods of anger, boredom, disillusionment, that aridity inevitably replaces ardor from time to time? How many people leave marriages for more passionate pastures, never learning that relationships require work, patience, tolerance, compassion (all the things that are so often ridiculed and trivialized in ads)? In a culture that surrounds us with images of lust and romance and very few models of long-term love, most of us grow up totally unprepared for life after infatuation. Actor Charlie Sheen unfortunately reflected a fairly common attitude when he said about his recent failed marriage, “You buy a car, it breaks down, what are you going to do? Get rid of it.” (pp.93-94)

Kilbourne also points out the limited, unsatisfactory choice of role models that advertising offers women. One can be a maternal, nurturing woman who rewards herself with food and cosmetic pampering because she can’t expect her family to meet her needs, or a feminine “good girl” who pleases boys by being pretty, quiet, and thin (to the point of anorexia), or a “bad girl” who expresses her strength and independence by abusing her body with alcohol and tobacco.

The culture, both reflected and reinforced by advertising, urges girls to adopt a false self, to bury alive their real selves, to become “feminine”, which means to be nice and kind and sweet, to compete with other girls for the attention of boys, and to value romantic relationships with boys above all else. Girls are put into a terrible double bind. They are supposed to repress their power, their anger, their exuberance and be simply “nice”, although they also eventually must compete with men in the business world and be successful. They must be overtly sexy and attractive but essentially passive and virginal… (p.130)

Meanwhile, boys learn from the media that tender feelings are girly (low-status, passive, weak). The only emotions they’re supposed to express are anger and lust. Both sexes are discouraged from taking responsibility for their sexual feelings or bringing their impulses into line with the values of emotional intimacy, commitment and trust. Advertisers perpetuate this “emotional illiteracy” because it feeds the fears and misunderstandings that we then soothe with new purchases.

Again and again, Kilbourne’s book exposes how the underlying philosophy of mainstream advertising is identical to that of pornography: addictive craving, despair about meaningful relationships, a narcissistic model of personal fulfillment, the displacement of desire from persons to things, and the reduction of human bodies to objects of consumption. If we’re having a hard time seeing porn as a serious problem, could it be because porn is too much like the corporate-driven culture we take for granted?

[O]ur children are prematurely exposed to a barrage of sexual information and misinformation through advertising, television shows, music, and films. “You can learn more about anatomy after school,” says an ad for jeans, which manages to trivialize sex, relationships, and education all in one sentence.

The consequences of all this sexual pressure on children are frightening. The average age of first sexual intercourse is about sixteen for girls and fifteen for boys. Far more disturbing is the fact that seven in ten girls who had sex before the age of fourteen and six in ten of those who had sex before the age of fifteen report having sex involuntarily. One of every ten girls under the age of twenty becomes pregnant in the United States each year, more than in any other industrialized country in the world… And as many as one in six sexually active adolescents has a sexually transmitted disease…

It is difficult to do the kind of research that would prove the effects of the media on sexual attitudes and behavior–because of the perceived sensitivity of sex as a topic and because of the difficulty in finding a comparison group. However, the few existing studies point to a relationship between exposure to sexual content and sexual beliefs, attitudes, and behavior. Two studies have found correlations between watching higher doses of ‘sexy’ television and early initiation of sexual intercourse, and studies of adolescents have found that heavy television viewing is predictive of negative attitudes toward virginity. In general, key communication theories and years of research on other kinds of communications effects, such as the effect of violent images, suggest that we are indeed affected by the ubiquitous, graphic, and consequence-free depictions of sexual behavior that surround us in all forms of the mass media…

The emphasis for girls and women is always on being desirable, not on experiencing desire. Girls who want to be sexually active instead of simply being the objects of male desire are given only one model to follow, that of exploitative male sexuality…

Women who are “powerful” in advertising are uncommitted. They treat men like sex objects: “If I want a man to see my bra, I take him home,” says an androgynous young woman. (pp.146-48)

This section of Kilbourne’s book is reminiscent of the stories of abuse victims turned porn producers, such as Jenna Jameson and Lizzie Borden, who sell a vision of female empowerment that identifies with the male abuser.

In the chapter titled “Advertising and Disconnection”, Kilbourne discusses how sexual messages in advertising encourage us to objectify our own and others’ bodies. Many people are vulnerable to such messages because sexual abuse or other childhood trauma makes them want to dissociate from their bodies, to create a false self so that the real one can be untouched by the abuse. Advertising, like porn, portrays people (especially women) as disconnected body parts, interchangeable as consumer goods, with no personalities or moral claims on us.

It is becoming clearer that this objectification has consequences, one of which is the effect that it has on sexuality and desire. Sex in advertising and the media is often criticized from a puritanical perspective–there’s too much of it, it’s too blatant, it will encourage kids to be promiscuous, and so forth. But sex in advertising has far more to do with trivializing sex than promoting it, with narcissism than with promiscuity, with consuming than with connecting. The problem is not that it is sinful, but that it is synthetic and cynical… (p.260)

In the world of advertising, only young people have sex. Not only are young women valued only for their sexuality, but the rest of us end up in a culture arrested in adolescence, surrounded by teenage fantasies of sex and romance, a culture that idealizes the very things that make real intimacy impossible–impulsive gratification, narcissism, distance and disconnection, romanticism, and eternal youth. Sex in advertising is about a constant state of desire and arousal–never about intimacy or fidelity or commitment. This not only makes intimacy impossible–it erodes real desire. The endless pursuit of passion is fueled by a sense of inner deadness, emptiness–and it is doomed to failure, like any addiction… (p.262)

Perhaps not surprisingly, at the same time that we are surrounded by these images and exhortations, many therapists and marriage counselors say that a chief complaint of many people, both single and married, these days is lack of desire… (p.266)

Perhaps these sexy images have the same effect as violent images: They lead more to desensitization than to imitation. As Norman Cousins said:

The trouble with this wide-open pornography is not that it corrupts, but that it desensitizes; not that it unleashes the passions, but that it cripples the emotions; not that it encourages a mature attitude, but that it is a reversion to infantile obsessions; not that it removes the blinders, but that it distorts the view. Prowess is proclaimed but love is denied. What we have is not liberation, but dehumanization. (p.267)

…Of course, all these sexual images aren’t intended to sell us on sex–they are intended to sell us on shopping. The desire they want to inculcate is not for orgasm but for more [gizmos]. This is the intent of the advertisers–but an unintended consequence is the effect these images have on real sexual desire and real lives. When sex is a commodity, there is always a better deal. The wreckage that ensues when people try to emulate the kind of sexuality glorified in the ads and the popular culture is everywhere, from my house to the White House. And many who choose not to act on these impulsive sexual mandates nonetheless end up worrying that something is wrong with them, with their flawed and all-too-human relationships.

So all these blatant sexual images that surround us actually are more likely to lead to disconnection rather than to connection. And substance abuse and addiction, especially for women, is often a response to disconnection. Advertising doesn’t cause this disconnection, of course, just as it doesn’t cause addiction. But it does objectify women’s bodies, making it more difficult for women to feel safely “embodied” and thus furthering a sense of dissociation. And it creates a climate in which disconnection and dissociation are normalized, even glorified and eroticized. And finally it deliberately offers addictive products–alcohol, cigarettes, food–as a way to cope with the pain this causes.

Far from improving, the situation continues to get worse. We are so used to blatant sexual images these days that advertisers have to constantly push the envelope in order to attract our attention, to break through the clutter. Increasingly, in order to shock us into paying attention, they borrow images from the world of pornography–which is a world of violence, a world of utter disconnection. (pp.268-69)

Can’t Buy My Loveis an invaluable tool for media education. Though Kilbourne’s repetitions of her central thesis can sometimes feel redundant, part of the reader’s discomfort no doubt comes from discovering how pervasive these unhealthy messages are, not just in the overtly shocking ads but in the sweet and sentimental ones. Many ads depend on subliminal appeals to those viewers with an addictive personality, which go unnoticed by the majority of consumers and therefore keep us from taking the threat seriously. Similarly, while porn may not turn the average person into a sex criminal, it’s easy to see how the plethora of porn films validating abusive behavior would have unusually strong effects on the industry’s core customers, who already have a disordered relationship to sexuality and are more likely to become obsessed with porn. This book forces us to ask essential questions about the source of our ideas about sexuality, freedom, pleasure and power.

See also:

A Review of Pornified: How Pornography Is Damaging Our Lives, Our Relationships, and Our Families

A Review of Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture

Testimony in Minneapolis: “Pornography is probably the most extreme example of anti-women socialization that men receive in this society”

Testimony in Minneapolis: Pornography contributes to women’s masochism, chronic depression, anxiety and lowered self-esteem; porn’s false promises to men

Testimony in Minneapolis: “Pornography in the home is insidious. Girls pick up the message, they act it out, they don’t know why they feel suicidal and crazy.”

Effects of Prolonged Consumption of Pornography on Family Values; Women’s Desire to Have Daughters Plummets

2 thoughts on “A Review of Can’t Buy My Love

  1. I’m not really sure how this is a review in the traditional sense of the word. Instead, it seems like an editorial where you use Ms. Kilbourne’s work as a jumping off point to support your own views. What I find interesting is the new ways people find to apply Plato’s Allegory of the cave to different topics. What I find disturbing is the assertion that consumers may say that advertising has no effect on them, but that can’t be true. Feminists have fought to have their voices heard in a society that all-too-often doesn’t listen to them. This fact forms the basis of the “No Means No” campaign. Yet, you’re willing to endorse a similar point of view that denies a person’s authentic voice.

  2. I’m afraid I don’t understand what you’re getting at here. Would you elaborate?

    Obviously our position is that advertising and media affect people. Equally obviously, we want people to hear and take note of those who have suffered from sexual abuse.

    With respect to the review, are you criticizing us for drawing on outside evidence and other people’s opinions to support our views? It’s not like our agenda is hidden.

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