The ad shows a little girl's bedroom carefully done up in pink and green--but the room has been emptied. It couldn't have been long since her stuff was cleared out. A pink balloon--a heart--is still clinging to the ceiling.
The e-tailer's message is to "make room for shoes" by moving the children out to grandma's. "Forever."
The ad is edgy and funny in that ironic vein we all know so well--astoundingly insensitive to people who wish they had (or still had) a child to put in such a room, and effective (yes, we noticed it).
Also, pernicious--even if unintentionally, says Jean Kilbourne: Though tongue-in-cheek, "It's part of the whole climate that says products are more important than relationships." But we know better than that, don't we?
We don't, argues Kilbourne, a longtime critic of the advertising industry, in her new book "Deadly Persuasion" (Free Press, $26), subtitled "Why Women and Girls Must Fight the Addictive Power of Advertising."
The problem is the sheer cumulative impact over a life of being exposed to tens of thousands of ads each week. "The constant repetition of the belief that products are more important than people has an impact," she writes.
In the brand-name consumer love-fest now going on, Kilbourne is a true counterculturist.
Her outrage is still incredulous: She quotes an ad for USA Today "that offers the consumer's eye between a knife and a fork and says, '12 Million Served Daily.' " (The rest of us are thinking, Yeah? So?) She rails: "There is no humanity, no individuality in this ad or others like it--people are simply products sold to advertisers, of value only as potential consumers." (There's some other way to regard them?)
Kilbourne came of age in the 1960s; you might infer this from her use of terms such as "objectify." But her critique is dead-on. "Advertising encourages us not only to objectify each other, but also to feel that our most significant relationships are with the products we buy," she writes. "It turns lovers into things and things into lovers and encourages us to feel passion for our products rather than our partners.
"Passion for products is especially dangerous when the products are potentially addictive, because addicts do feel they are in a relationship with their substances. I used to joke that Jack Daniel's was my most constant lover. The smoker feels that the cigarette is her best friend."
The advertising industry is just doing its job well--selling--but there is collateral damage. One example: Food is sold as sex, and "eating becomes a moral issue. . . . In the old days, bad girls got pregnant. These days they get fat--and are more scorned, shamed and despised than ever before," she writes. Dieters are "the ideal consumer," who "will spend a lot on food and then spend even more to lose weight, and the cycle never stops."
The alcohol and tobacco industries have co-opted rebellion. Sex has been denatured. ("It is a cold and passionless sex that surrounds us. . . . This notion that sexiness and sex appeal come from without rather than within is one of advertising's most damaging messages. Real sexiness has to do with a passion for life, individuality, uniqueness, vitality. It has nothing to do with products or with all the bored, perfect-looking models embracing that we see all around us.")
This comes down to another argument for something parents can do themselves--or rather, have to do themselves: Teach children about hype. It helps for youngsters to be "media-literate," to learn early that ads, fashion, entertainment and other media are all designed to make money.
Kilbourne has a 12-year-old daughter. When the girl was 10, Kilbourne started a mother-daughter discussion group that gets together about once a month. She invited her daughter's friends and their mothers, and now the moms are friends, too. The group discusses such things as movies, television, makeup, boys--the gamut of girl talk. Sort of reminds us of--guerrilla action. Yes. Sisterhood. "Culture jam."