Visual Argument

We encounter visual arguments every day of our lives. One of the most common (and arguably most strident) of these is the advertisement. Within a static image, a magazine or billboard ad must instantly and memorably present its claims so that the viewer is left craving the product; however, in her documentary series Killing Us Softly, public speaker and activist Jean Kilbourne asserts that these ads do much more than just product placement: they tell us who we should be and what we should look like—especially if we are women. In order to understand some of the nuances of her argument as well as how to analyze visuals more effectively, watch the trailer for the documentary Killing Us Softly 4, and then respond to the questions below.

  • Kilbourne begins her argument with the claim that ads market female beauty; however, she also adds that when women attempt to achieve the images of beauty in advertisements, “failure is inevitable.” Why specifically does she argue that women cannot reach these unrealistic beauty standards? Provide an example from the trailer of a specific way that ads make their brand of beauty unattainable.
  • The presenter continues by arguing that women are often objectified within advertisements, literally turned into objects like beer bottles, cars, and video games (or even “dismembered” into sexualized body parts). What does Kilbourne argue are the very real consequences of depicting women in this manner? Do you agree with her? Why or why not?
  • Kilbourne mentions that some actresses and models (specifically Kate Winslet) have spoken out against these unfair practices. What concrete changes would you like to see in the world of advertising in order to counteract some of the problematic messages sent to women? Be specific.
  • Lastly, remember that at the beginning of the trailer, Kilbourne states, “[Advertisements] sell values. They sell concepts of … success, and perhaps most important, of normalcy.” What other ways do you see advertisements hawking a limited vision of success and normalcy (that don’t necessarily have to apply only to women)? Find an advertisement that you feel “sells” an unfair vision of who people should be, and explain exactly how you feel that the ad does this. (Feel free to provide a link for the advertisement you have chosen or attach it as a jpeg.)

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