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, a feminist author and film-maker, 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," Dr Kilbourne said during a visit to the UK. She cited a 2005 Scottish study of 1,400 teenagers showing that a substantial minority believed that violence was acceptable in relationships in certain circumstances.
This is a "public health issue", just as smoking used to be, Dr Kilbourne told an audience in Edinburgh. "Just as it is difficult to be healthy in a toxic physical environment, so it is difficult to raise healthy children in a toxic cultural environment."
Dr Kilbourne said that education paved the way for a cultural shift around smoking that until fairly recently had seemed unthinkable, leading to a widespread ban on smoking in public places and heavy restrictions on tobacco advertising. Equally, teaching media literacy in schools is essential to help combat advertising's pernicious influence, she argued.
Not only is sex used to sell "almost everything", according to Dr Kilbourne, but 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". The film-maker also raised concerns about the ease with which children can now access pornography.
A study by children's charity the NSPCC, commissioned by The Daily Telegraph, this week reported that almost a third of school students believe that internet pornography influences how young people behave in relationships.
The warning from Dr Kilbourne comes as the numbers of students opting to take media studies at schools in the UK fell this year, with young people increasingly choosing more traditional academic qualifications. At A level, the number of entries for media, film and television studies fell by 9.3 per cent in just one year, from 32,111 in 2012 to 29,112 in 2013.
Dr 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 (victim) is dehumanised and the violence becomes inevitable," she said.
That process is evident in magazines read by pre-teens, Dr Kilbourne added, which bombard young girls with visions of "absolutely flawless" feminine beauty, tricks of digital photo editing that are impossible for anyone to live up to. 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, Dr Kilbourne argued. Men are portrayed as "tough, powerful and brutal", which "does tremendous damage to them - they are encouraged to repress their feelings, not to communicate".
She sees a growing "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," Dr Kilbourne said. Children are learning about sex from pornography that is mostly "brutal, violent and misogynistic", she added.
According to Dr 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 take a stand against 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.