Jean Kilbourne
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Jean Kilbourne

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The Image of Women in Advertising


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Jean Kilbourne

Jean KilbourneThe Image of Women in Advertising

Jean Kilbourne is internationally recognized for her groundbreaking work on the image of women in advertising and for her critical studies of alcohol and tobacco advertising. In the late 1960s she began her exploration of the connection between advertising and several public health issues, including violence against women, eating disorders, and addiction, and launched a movement to promote media literacy as a way to prevent these problems. A radical and original idea at the time, this approach is now mainstream and an integral part of most prevention programs. According to Susan Faludi, “Jean Kilbourne’s work is pioneering and crucial to the dialogue of one of the most underexplored, yet most powerful, realms of American culture— advertising.

We owe her a great debt.” Mary Pipher has called Kilbourne “our best, most compassionate teacher.”

Her films, lectures, and television appearances have been seen by millions of people throughout the world. She is the creator of the renowned Killing Us Softly: Advertising’s Image of Women film series and the author of the award-winning book Can’t Buy My Love: How Advertising Changes the Way We Think and Feel and So Sexy So Soon: The New Sexualized Childhood and What Parents Can Do to Protect Their Kids. In 2015 she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.


Kilbourne has been what The Boston Globe described as “a superstar lecturer” for many years. Once named by the The New York Times Magazine as one of the three most popular speakers on college campuses, she has twice received the Lecturer of the Year award from the National Association for Campus Activities. She has lectured at about half of all the colleges and universities in the United States and all of the major universities in Canada, as well as scores of private and public schools. She is also sought after as a keynote speaker at a wide range of conferences, including those focusing on addictions and public health, violence, women, and the media.She is known for her wit and warmth and her ability to present provocative topics in a way that unites rather than divides, that encourages dialogue, and that moves and empowers people to take action in their own and in society’s interest. A member of the Italian Parliament said, “Hearing Jean Kilbourne is a profound experience. Audiences leave her feeling that they have heard much more than another lecture, for she teaches them to see themselves and their world differently.” Renowned media researcher George Gerbner described her presentations as “a form of mass vaccination with a symbolic antidote of a most powerful kind.” Students at Harvard Business School responded to her lecture with a standing ovation and a letter stating, “The importance of your research has not been lost on the Harvard Business School students as was evidenced by the remarkable turnout . . . The entire presentation will stand out as a highlight of our education here.”

Even advertisers sometimes respond positively, as in an AdWeek editorial: “After listening to Jean Kilbourne, I would never doubt her intellectual honesty. While she bills herself as a critic of advertising, she is more akin to a prophet calling out in the wilderness for fundamental change in the way we communicate publicly with one another.”


Kilbourne has made several award-winning documentary films based on her lectures. They are used widely throughout the world. Her first film Killing Us Softly: Advertising’s Image of Women (and the remakes Still Killing Us Softly, Killing Us Softly 3, and Killing Us Softly 4) are among the most popular educational films of all time. Jay Carr, film critic for The Boston Globe, wrote, “With skill, humor and acuteness, Kilbourne encourages action against these society-weakening images. Never shrill, her indictment is, if anything, understated.”

Her other films include Deadly Persuasion: The Advertising of Alcohol & Tobacco, Spin the Bottle: Sex, Lies & Alcohol, Slim Hopes: Advertising & the Obsession with Thinness, Pack of Lies: The Advertising of Tobacco, and Calling the Shots: Advertising Alcohol.


Kilbourne is the author (with Diane E. Levin) of So Sexy So Soon: The New Sexualized Childhood and What Parents Can Do to Protect Their Kids (Ballantine, 2008). Her book, Can’t Buy My Love: How Advertising Changes the Way We Think and Feel (originally published as Deadly Persuasion by Simon & Schuster in 1999) won the Distinguished Publication Award from the Association for Women in Psychology. Publishers Weekly called it “a profound work that is required reading for informed consumers.”

She has written many articles, including editorials in The New York Times, USA Today and The Journal of the American Medical Women’s Association, and has contributed chapters to many books.

Through her lectures, films, and articles, many of her original ideas and concepts have become mainstream. These include the concepts of the tyranny of the beauty ideal, the connection between the objectification of women and violence, the themes of liberation and weight control exploited in tobacco advertising aimed at women, the targeting of alcoholics by the alcohol industry, addiction as a love affair, and many others.


Kilbourne is internationally recognized as an expert on addictions, gender issues, and the media. She served as an advisor to former Surgeons General C. Everett Koop and Antonia Novello and has testified for the U.S. Congress. In 1993 she was appointed by the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services to the National Advisory Council on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. In 2011 she gave a presentation to an assembly of the Parliament in London. 


Reporters from all over the world rely on Jean Kilbourne as an accurate and interesting source. She has been interviewed by Time, Newsweek, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, The Globe and Mail, The Guardian, The London Times, Huffington Post, and Al Jezeera America, among many other publications. She has been a guest on hundreds of television and radio programs, including NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, All Things Considered, The Today Show, Carte Blanche (South Africa), and The Oprah Winfrey Show. In 2013 she was featured in the PBS special MAKERS: Women Who Make America.


Kilbourne has a B.A. in English from Wellesley College and a doctorate in education from Boston University. Upon her graduation, she received an award from Wellesley that enabled her to spend three years in Europe, working for the British Broadcasting Corporation in London and for a French film company in Paris. She has been a Senior Scholar at the Wellesley Centers for Women (an honorary position) since 1984.

The recipient of the most prestigious alumni awards from both Wellesley College and Boston University, Kilbourne has also received awards from many other organizations, including the American Humanist Association, the National Association for Eating Disorders, the Entertainment Industries Council, the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, and the National Organization for Women. The presenter of an award from the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) said, “No one in the world has done more to improve the image of women in the media than Jean Kilbourne.”

In 2004 she received an honorary doctorate from Westfield State College that proclaimed “Through research informed by a deep sense of justice, your insights lead us from consumerism to consciousness.” She also received a most unusual tribute in 2004 when an all-female rock band in Canada named itself Kilbourne in her honor.

She was featured in the PBS series Makers: Women Who Make America that interviewed one hundred women “pioneers who have shaped the world in which we live,” and was profiled in Feminists Who Changed America 1963–1975. One of twenty-one journalists, media activists, and educators included in a Media Heroes deck of trading cards, her card said, “Jean Kilbourne pioneered the critical study of images of women in advertising and the use of media literacy for public health and prevention. In 1969 she began lecturing on these topics, and has never stopped, traveling widely and inspiring many educators to follow her example of unflinching critique.”

In 2015 she was inducted into the National Woman’s Hall of Fame.


Dr. Kilbourne’s presentations include:

So Sexy So Soon: The New Sexualized Childhood

The Naked Truth: Advertising’s Image of Women

Deadly Persuasion: Advertising & Addiction

Deadly Persuasion: Advertising & the Corruption of Relationships

Pack of Lies: The Advertising of Tobacco

You’ve Come the Wrong Way, Baby: Women and Smoking

Marketing Misery: Selling Addictions to Women

Slim Hopes: Advertising & the Obsession with Thinness

Falling in Love with Food: Connection & Disconnection in Food Advertising

Eating Our Hearts Out: Advertising & Obesity

Under the Influence: The Advertising of Alcohol

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