I picked up this book after hearing the author on NPR. The title made my husband roll his eyes, and really, that was how I thought about it too, in those first few days of immersing myself in Kilbourne’s clear, to-the-point prose. After all, that second degree I spent two years slaving on is in marketing and communications. Advertising is a core part of my “past life.” How could I really believe this extremist viewpoint?

The thing was, she didn’t sound too wacked out on NPR. In fact, she sounded like someone I would be friends with. She pointed out a few things that really bother me in that interview, including addictive behavior being ignored and the wide scale objectification of women. So, when I was at Half-Priced Books, I picked up a copy. After reading “Advertising performs much the same function in industrial society as myth performed in ancient and primitive societies” I was unable to put it down. Joseph Campbell’s scholarly travails into the meaning of myth is what led me, in part, to my big cannonball dive into the Catholic Church. This sentence resonated with something I have found in my own experiences of late, and I kept on reading. I found these gems, which only sunk me deeper into the book:

Advertising is not only our physical environment, it is increasingly our
spiritual environment as well. By definition, however, it is only
interested in materialistic values.

Advertising co-opts our sacred
symbols and sacred language in order to evoke an immediate emotional
response. Neil Postman refers to this as “cultural rape” that leaves us
deprived of our most meaningful images.

Advertising and religion
share a belief in transformation and transcendence, but most religions believe
that this requires work and sacrifice. In the world of advertising,
enlightenment is achieved instantly by purchasing material

The focus of the transformation has shifted from the soul to
the body. Of course, this trivializes and cheapens authentic spirituality
and transcendence. But, more important, this junk food for the soul leaves
us hungry, empty, malnourished.

James Twitchell argues that the
label of our shirt, the make of our car, and our favorite laundry detergent are
filling the vacuum once occupied by religion, education, and our family

As Dee says, “The men and women who make ads are not
hucksters; they are artists with nothing to say, and they have found their
form.” Unfortunately, their form deeply influences all the other forms of
the culture. We end up expecting nothing more.

Every chapter gave me a different set of things to think about. Kilbourne has not only done enormous research over the last 20 years, which she tirelessly documents and references, she also has a past as a recovering alcoholic. Her viewpoint sings to my own past, to the binge drinking and heavy partying I did in college and to the struggles I faced when I stopped smoking. When she pointed out that pornography has become mainstream, thanks to advertising, I had to stop reading for a moment. (Think I’m being dramatic? Well, maybe a little. But, after reading chapter 12, if you still feel the drama is uncalled for, let me know.)

As a parent, I think this book is a must. As a former advertising exec, I know this book rings true. As a recipient of all these advertising messages, as a recovering addict, as a woman, this book gives me the knowledge I need to brace myself, and hopefully prepare my daughter better.

Here’s an excerpt from the last chapter to whet your appetite:

Traditionally the approach to addiction in the United States has been consonant with our national ideology of rugged individualism and self-determination. The belief has been that a few unlucky people, through character flaws and general weakness, become addicted. As a culture, we tend to despise anyone (the poor, children, the disabled) who reminds us that we are all vulnerable and that no one is really independent. The solution has been to get addicts into treatment as individuals (or, in the case of the less popular drugs or the drugs used by African-Americans, to imprison them).

“Prevention” traditionally has also had an individual focus – “just say no,” resist peer pressure, and so forth. But how can we expect kids to say “no” to drugs, when their environment tells them “yes!” People make choices, for better or worse, in a physical, social, economic, and legal environment. The credo of individualism and self-determination ignores the fact that people’s behavior is profoundly shaped by their environment, which in turn is shaped by public policy. Certainly individual behavior and responsibility matter, but they don’t occur within a vacuum. The American tradition of individual responsibility and promise has been perverted to an extreme form of isolated individualism, as individualism no longer connected with active citizenship and community participation. The result is isolation, alienation, a failure to nurture the next generation or to care for the earth. As social critic Stanley Crouch said, “We get confused about the difference between heroic individuality, which makes possible a greater social freedom, and anarchic individuality, which is ruthless, narcissistic, amoral and dangerous.” A long time ago, Alexis de Toqueville suggested that America’s strength was also its vulnerability, that the nation’s vibrant individualism might in the long run “attack and destroy” society itself, for it can create individuals so atomized or self-involved that they “no longerfeel bound by a common interest.”

Advertising’s point of view is always and necessarily extremely individualistic. The basic message of advertising, after all, is that an individual has a need or a problem that a product can meet or fix. We are constantly told by advertising that all we need to do is use the right products and get our own individual acts together and all will be fine. If we are unhappy, there is something wrong with us that can be solved by buying something. We can smoke a cigarette or have a drink or eat some ice cream. Or we can lose some weight (instantly, of course). If the problem is a headache, the solution is a stronger aspirin, rather than to question why we have so many headaches, what is going on in our buildings, our food, our environment, why we are so stressed. If the problem is a lack of communication in our family, the solution is a different telephone service or a new kind of frozen dinner.