Media - Unlock the secrets of advertising to combat violence

Teach children to decode 'toxic' imagery, says campaigner

Henry Hepburn

Scottish schools must teach media literacy so that students can decode "toxic" images in advertising that contribute to violence against women, according to a world-leading expert in the relationship between advertising and public health.

US campaigner Jean Kilbourne, who has been studying these issues since the 1960s, addressed audiences in Edinburgh last week. She believes that education can play an important role in combating domestic abuse and sexual violence against women.

"Very dangerous attitudes about sex and violence have become normalised in our culture," Ms Kilbourne said. She cited a Scottish study of 1,400 teenagers which showed that a substantial minority believed violence was acceptable in relationships in certain circumstances.

This was a "public health issue", just as smoking had been, Ms Kilbourne said. "Just as it's difficult to be healthy in a toxic physical environment, so it's difficult to raise healthy children in a toxic cultural environment," she added.

Sex is used to sell "almost everything", Ms Kilbourne told delegates at an event organised by the national Violence Reduction Unit, adding that in recent years there has been a growing tendency in advertising - paralleled in music videos and computer games - to "trivialise and eroticise violence against women".

Ms Kilbourne said that her long-held instinctive belief in a link between advertising and violence against women, once a radical idea, has increasingly gained credence in academia: "Research is clear - violent images affect us. Turning a human being into a thing is almost always the first step towards violence against that person - the person is dehumanised and the violence becomes inevitable," she said.

That process is evident in magazines read by pre-teens where young girls are bombarded with visions of "absolutely flawless" feminine beauty, tricks of digital photo editing that are impossible in real life. She cited supermodel Cindy Crawford, who once said: "I wish I looked like Cindy Crawford."

Advertising places male and female characteristics in two very distinct camps, denying the existence of shared qualities, Ms Kilbourne argued. Men are portrayed as "tough, powerful and brutal", which "does tremendous damage to them - they are encouraged to repress their feelings, to not communicate".

She sees an "obsession with thinness that is about cutting girls down to size", and a tendency for women in advertising to be "silenced": they appear passive or, if allowed to communicate, will do so through provocative sexuality rather than words.

"The problem is not sex, but pornographic attitudes to sex and the trivialisation of sex," Ms Kilbourne said. Children are learning about sex from pornography, she argued, which is mostly "brutal, violent and misogynistic".

According to Ms Kilbourne, research shows that young women exposed to sexual imagery are more prone to depression, eating disorders and low self-esteem. Meanwhile, any hope of counteracting such effects are undermined because responsible adults appear "hesitant to talk honestly about sex", she said.

She believes it is "absolutely critical" that men speak out against the prevailing images of women fuelled by the advertising industry. "Most men are not violent but many men are afraid to speak out," the campaigner concluded.

Register to continue reading for free

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you

Henry Hepburn

Henry Hepburn

Henry Hepburn is the news editor for Tes Scotland

Find me on Twitter @Henry_Hepburn

Latest stories