Jean Kilbourne

‘Other feminists would say to me, “We’re dealing with serious issues like violence against women. We don’t have time for trivial issues like the image of women in advertising.”’

Interviewed by Claudia Kilbourne Lux, April 2022

JK:  My name is Jean Kilbourne. I was born in Junction City, Kansas, on January 4, 1943. I’m the only member of my family not born in Yonkers, New York. I was born in Kansas because my father was in the cavalry at the time and he was stationed at Fort Riley. Soon after I was born, when I was one year old, he went overseas and was away on the front lines for two years and came back when I was three. Then we eventually moved back to New York and then to a little town south of Boston called Hingham, which is where I grew up.

I had two older brothers and one younger brother. Tragically, our mother died when I was only nine years old and my father had suffered from unrecognized, untreated PTSD and was away a lot for work. So, my brothers and I basically raised ourselves. I went to Wellesley College on a full scholarship and graduated in 1964. The world was very different for women then than it is now, or even than it was five years later when Hillary graduated from Wellesley in 1969.

When I graduated from Wellesley, I had to go to secretarial school in order to get a job. I already had a job lined up because I had won an award that enabled me to move to London and to work for the BBC, but as a secretary. I spent about a year in London working as a secretary for the BBC. The job was not very interesting, but living in London was certainly interesting. After about a year or so in London, I moved to Paris and I got a job as a secretary to a man there who was the head of a film company. He was so insecure that when I corrected his grammatical errors in the letters he dictated to me, he would have me retype the letters and put the errors back in. So that was what the world was like then.

I had many secretarial jobs. I was a waitress. It was very difficult to find work that was meaningful or fulfilling. I had the opportunity to model, and I did some of that. But I found that although lucrative and seductive in some ways, it was also quite soul-destroying. There was an enormous amount of sexual harassment that came with the territory. So, I wasn’t able to do that for very long. That was not an option that was really available to me because of that.

CKL:  How did you get involved in the women’s movement?

JK:  Like many women in my generation, I became involved in the anti-war movement. The war in Vietnam, in many ways, broke my heart. Up until that point, I was very idealistic about the United States. I was also quite ignorant about a lot of what my country had done around the world. And it just changed my whole perspective. I became very active in that movement. I marched, I was tear-gassed, I joined committees, I did all kinds of things. And like many women, I found that as a woman, I was treated very differently than the men in the anti-war movement. And so that led quite smoothly, actually, to my involvement in the women’s movement, as it did for so many others in my generation.

We formed consciousness-raising groups, and we began to talk about not only how we were treated in the anti-war movement, but about our lives, and to really just tell the stories of our lives. The poet Muriel Rukeyser once said, “If one woman told the truth about her life, the world would split open.” And in those days, in the late ’60s, lots of women started to tell the truth about their lives, and the world did split open.

What we learned was that all kinds of things that we thought were individual, many of us have been the victims of sexual assault or childhood sexual abuse or domestic violence, and we all felt ashamed and secretive about these things, as if they had only happened to us or maybe only happened to us because there was something wrong with us or we were asking for it in some way or something like that.

But to get together in these groups and to hear other women share the same stories totally changed us and transformed our lives, really. We began to see that these issues were not just personal, they were deeply political and shared, and that we needed to really change the society and to change the world. So that’s what we set out to do in the second wave of the women’s movement.

CKL:  Amazing. What were your major accomplishments personally and that you were involved with?

JK:  I was very involved in the women’s movement. I was involved in different groups and the National Organization for Women and small consciousness-raising groups. I was also interested in the media. I’d worked for the BBC. I’d worked in other ways in the media and my attention was drawn. One day, I had a very mindless job putting ads into a medical journal and one of the ads was for birth control pills called Ovulen-21. And the copy said, “Ovulen-21 works the way a woman thinks, by weekdays, not by cycle days.”

The ad was basically saying that we were too stupid to remember our cycle, but we could remember the days of the week. But to help us out, there was a head of a woman in this ad, and in her head, there were seven boxes, one for each day of the week. Monday was a laundry basket and Tuesday was an iron. I remember looking at this ad and thinking, this is outrageous and it is not trivial. This is really damaging.

I took the ad home, I put it on my refrigerator. Gradually, I started collecting other ads. I saw a pattern in the ads. I bought a camera and a copy stand and made slides from the ads and put together a slide presentation. Now, this was 1968-1969. I was the first person to study the image of women in advertising in any kind of serious way. Most people thought that advertising was so trivial that it just wasn’t worthy of attention, including other feminists.

So other feminists would say to me, “We’re dealing with serious issues like violence against women. We don’t have time for trivial issues like the image of women in advertising.” And I would say “They are related. When you objectify a person and dehumanize a person and turn that person into an object, you set them up for violence and abuse.” The objectification in advertising and throughout the media creates a climate in which there’s widespread violence and abuse of women and girls. It is related and it is not trivial.

CKL:  How many films have you made since you started that slideshow?

JK:  In the beginning, I took the slideshow on the road, and then it was clear that if I wanted to reach a really wide audience, I needed to turn it into a film. In 1979 I made Killing Us Softly: Advertising’s Image of Women, which was a very inexpensive, one-take, one-shot, one-camera-angle film. And in today’s language, it went viral. It became extremely popular, it was very widely used, and since then, I’ve remade it three times, most recently in 2010 as Killing Us Softly 4.

In the 1970’s, I also became interested in alcohol and tobacco advertising and began to make films and write about the way in which these industries targeted children in particular and also women. My whole career has been as a public speaker, as a filmmaker, as a writer, dealing with advertising criticism, with looking at advertising as a public health problem, basically, and seeing the role that marketing plays in all kinds of public health problems, from eating disorders, violence against women, alcoholism, Big Pharma, drug addiction, opioid addiction, all of it.

If you look at almost any public health problem that we have, there is a big industry profiting from it. And that industry has a huge amount of power in how these issues get framed, in how they get dealt with politically, and making sure that any measure that might really help with these public health problems doesn’t make much headway.

CKL:  So how many films, all told, at this point? And you said you write as well. What have you written? Tell us a little bit about that.

JK:  I made about twelve films about alcohol, about tobacco, about women, several versions of Killing Us Softly.

CKL:  Have any of those won any awards or anything?

JK:  Yes.

CKL:  Tell us about those.

JK:  Killing Us Softly has won several awards, and I think some of the others have too, but I can’t remember what they are now. My first book, which originally was called Deadly Persuasion, but then in paperback, the title was changed to Can’t Buy My Love, How Advertising Changes the Way We Think and Feel, won an award from the American Women’s Psychological Association. Then I wrote a book a few years later called So Sexy So Soon: The New Sexualized Childhood, and What Parents Can Do to Protect Their Kids.

CKL:  I understand that you were a big player in the process with changing the tobacco industry in the way that tobacco is able to be advertised. Can you speak to that in terms of it being a major accomplishment?

JK:  I feel proud of the role that I played both with alcohol and tobacco in trying to get both these issues recognized as public health issues. Alcoholism used to be looked at as an individual weakness, or a character disorder, or something like that. It isn’t, of course. It’s a disease, but it’s also a disease that is enormously profitable for the alcohol industry. Ten percent of drinkers consume sixty percent of all the alcohol sold. So, in other words, if those ten percent got sober, the alcohol industry would be devastated.

The tobacco industry needs to target children, because ninety percent of smokers start before they turn age eighteen. Most people aren’t going to start smoking by the time they’re eighteen or twenty or old enough to know better. The tobacco industry has always been in the business of targeting children. The work I did had to do with trying to bring about public health measures that would actually make a difference in terms of limiting the consumption of alcohol and tobacco.

Those include things like restrictions on advertising, raising the taxes on these products, and much better education. These are the very things that, of course, the alcohol and tobacco industries never want us to do. It’s been a very difficult climb – but we’ve certainly made progress in particularly with tobacco. We’ve made a whole lot of progress.

CKL:  How has your involvement in the movement affected your later life, both personally and professionally?

JK:  My involvement in the women’s movement completely changed my life permanently. I became ultimately much more self-confident. I found my voice. I found a career that was immensely satisfying and fulfilling for me. One of the most important things in my life was having a child. I was forty-four when I had my daughter, and that is something that probably would have been more difficult at an earlier time. There was much more pressure to get married and to have children very young and all of that. I didn’t do that. I needed the time to find my way and to establish my career. But for me, it was extraordinarily important to have a child, and so that was something that I was very glad was possible for me.

CKL:  Have you been involved as an activist in the women’s movement or other areas since your second wave experience?

JK:  I’ve been a feminist activist in some ways my whole life, but certainly since the late 1960’s since I became part of the second wave of feminism. That’s something that will never change. I mean, I’m a born activist and this is how I’ve spent my career. And although I’m not lecturing very much anymore, that’s partly because of the pandemic, I’m still doing a lot of interviews and podcasts and writing. And I’m also mentoring a lot of young women who are carrying on this work. And some of the third-wave feminists I’m very close to. My daughter certainly is a feminist activist, so I’m very much still a part of the movement.

During the pandemic, I began doing genealogical research that I’ve been meaning to do for a long time, and I learned a whole lot about my background, my ancestry that I had not known at all. To me, one of the most interesting parts was that my ancestral grandfather, my great, great, maybe to the seventh power grandfather, John Hicks, was in the Boston Tea Party and was one of the first fifty Americans killed during the Revolutionary War. I was so thrilled to discover that my roots in Boston are not only deep, they’re revolutionary.

CKL:  Would you say that there’s anything else that’s relevant that we haven’t covered?

JK:  There’s so much, but I think that I can add enough to this page so that people who want to learn more in depth about any aspect of what I’ve just talked about, there’s plenty of material out there, and that’s probably the best way to do it. What I would say is that I’m very happy to be part of this project. I think the Veteran Feminists of America are doing a wonderful job of making sure that our history is not lost or forgotten, and I applaud the efforts that are being made, and I’m very happy to be part of this.