Within the field of mass communication, there's a theory known as the Hypodermic Needle Theory outlining the power the media has over its audiences.
It's not a new theory by any means; in fact, it was firstentered into public discussion in the early 20th century by Harold Laswell in the midst of the first World War. Laswell proposed that the media are in absolute control over what information its audiences consume. They are the puppet-masters, if you will.
The Puppet Masters
If they're the puppet masters, doesn't that make us the puppets? In Laswell's theory, yes, we would be. We as the audience are viewed as being easily manipulated by media outlets so much so that the media can easily sway public opinion and behavior en masse.
Why is it called the Hypodermic Needle Theory? In essence, the media is injecting a message into our minds that stays there and affects our behavior whether it's an immediate reaction or delayed. The choice of the needle further portrays our helpless and powerless we have over our behavior as the media's messaging takes hold. More crudely, it has been referred to as the Magic Bullet Theory, with the imagery of that being a gun being held to our heads and a magic bullet entering our thoughts. Again, the aspect of the audience being powerless over this phenomenon is in play.
But Are We Really Puppets?
Are we as a population really as vulnerable as Laswell suggests? I want so badly to shout, "No! We have free will, we make our own decisions, we can think for ourselves." But is that really true? Are we not at any way influenced and manipulated by the media on a daily basis?
The War of the Worlds
Do you remember reading about Orson Welles's famous CBS radio broadcast that occurred back in 1938? It was called The War of the Worlds and was supposed to be a fun, solely entertaining, completely fictional radio drama. It was actually an episode part of a larger anthology. It broadcast live on the eve of Halloween of a Martian alien invasion.
The broadcast started off, of course announcing that this special performance was an adaptation of H.G. Wells's novel of the same name, however with a modern spin of being set in modern day 1938. It played out as a standard news broadcast for the first 20 minutes, the news anchor getting alerts and interruptions as they'd come in from reporters. These news bulletins would feature frantic reporters, one of whom's feed cut out mid panic. Each report details more horrific details of The U.S, military arriving on scene, to clouds of poison gas, Martian war machines, New York in chaos, people dropping like flies... Reporters call in live on the broadcast and begin coughing as clouds of smoke fill their location. It's utter chaos in this radio drama adaptation. The first half of the radio drama breaks with the last reporter saying, "Is there anyone on the air? Isn't there... anyone?" as silence lingers.
The second half of the broadcast follows an interview of a survivor, played by Orson Welles. The conclusion of the story of the Martians being defeated by microbes rather than humans culminates this 16 minute ending. But of course how does relate to my proposal that we are so influenced by the media?
The broadcast sounded so life-like and realistic, and those not having been there initially at the beginning to hear it prefaced as a modern day adaptation of H.G. Wells's The War of the Worlds never knew it was a radio drama. Because of the life-like, uninterrupted reporting employed during the show's first half, there were people who truly believed Earth was being attacked by Martians.
Many people reportedly called police panicking, and soon the radio studio was flooded with policemen as CBS executives and network pages struggled with police so as not to interrupt the broadcast. Right as they went off air, the studio door burst open.
"The following hours were a nightmare. The building was suddenly full of people and dark-blue uniforms. Hustled out of the studio, we were locked into a small back office on another floor. Here we sat incommunicado while network employees were busily collecting, destroying, or locking up all scripts and records of the broadcast. Finally, the Press was let loose upon us, ravening for horror. How many deaths had we heard of? (Implying they knew of thousands.) What did we know of the fatal stampede in a Jersey hall? (Implying it was one of many.) What traffic deaths? (The ditches must be choked with corpses.) The suicides? (Haven't you heard about the one on Riverside Drive?) It is all quite vague in my memory and quite terrible."
- Paul White, head of CBS News, courtesy of Run-through: a memoir
Of course the panic did not end of being nearly as widespread as the newspapers reporting on it declared it to be, and the panic appeared to have been greatly exaggerated. In fact, it was to de determined that the audience size was actually limited and the panic almost non-existent.
But the police stormed down the door! Yes, they did. Why? Because people's initial responses to hearing this Martian invasion were to call the police or their local newspaper to confirm the details or seek more information. I'll write that again. The general public's first response was to seek out more knowledge. The call volume was indicative of a rational response by the public, and this example is one that further makes me think we absolutely do have the ability to think for ourselves.
The Media: More than a One-Way Street
The basis of the Hypodermic Needle Theory involves the audience being passive, being the puppets whose mind is bended at will, but this simply isn't the case. Most people are active participants in the news they consume. They actively seek it out, and moreso, they interact with it! They will write the editor, they'll reach out via social media, everyone has a comment these days, and people will make their voices heard, you better believe it!
With so many ways to consume the news from TV to radio, podcasts to blogs, social media to even newspapers, people have their pick of how to get information and who they listen to and give their attention. They also generally will seek out channels and content that mirror their own belief systems.
I'd argue that in this day and age, the audience are not the passive puppets proposed by Laswell, but active participants who engage, question, and even contribute! Information is more like a two way street. There's constant engagement with content and stories. I think while the initial theory could have had merit, it seems very thinly supported by actual evidence.
Cognitive Dissonance Theory
This theory actually rivals the Hypodermic Needle Theory. It was proposed in 1957 by Leon Festinger, arguing what cognitive dissonance was (two opposing thoughts/ideas) and how people dealt with it as a result. Check out this video for a crash course.
An example of cognitive dissonance could be that I bite my nails, and that I know nail-biting is a bad habit. Both are fact, but are inconsistent with each other, giving me cognitive dissonance as I continue to bite my nails, despite knowing it's a bad habit. Therefore, I need to resolve my inconsistency. This could be through a change in thought. I can tell myself, well, nail-biting isn't really that bad of a habit. Or I could change my behavior, such as stopping biting my nails. But something else I could do would be to add a thought, something to help me rationalize what I'm doing to myself. So, I could say, yes I bite my nails, and yes that's a bad habit, but I also don't eat sugar, and I exercise daily, and I eat whole foods, therefore, rationalizing to myself. And of course, I could also trivialize the issue quite literally at hand, and say yes I bite my nails, yes it's a bad habit, but it's not that big of a deal, I'm not hurting anyone, it doesn't have any consequences, I'm going to keep doing it, which is actually what I actually do!
But why is dissonance bad? Inconsistency is physically uncomfortable to experience. Therefore, we need to remedy these inconsistencies to feel better, and resolve the issue.
The Cognitive Dissonance Theory supports the fact that the public has a choice to actively decide what they do and don't listen to. And in general, the public actually seeks out information that is most in-line with their current belief system. If I'm a Democrat, I'm not going to seek out to watch a Republican news broadcast, and vice-versa. We tend to want to consume information in support of our existing beliefs, making us active participates in what we watch/hear/read. The Uses and Gratifications Theory impresses this point as we seek out information that suits our needs and discard anything that doesn't.
Simply put, we are not the puppets Laswell suggests we are. To an extent.
The Mass Media and Public Perception
While when it comes to news sources and information, I do think we have more free will to make our minds up for ourselves. On that I am firm.
However, the influence of mass media is undeniable.
Think back on diet culture. How old were you when you first realized you didn't look like that model in the magazine? Where you became aware that you didn't look like Barbie or Ken or that on every magazine cover were rail thin models who had tips on losing 10 pounds in 10 days. How old were you when you started your first diet, or became obsessed with the gym or your personal appearance?
The media portrays that men and women should strive to achieve this unattainable beauty. We should all look like Instagram models. There are even filters built into our phones and apps when you open them right out of the box. My new Samsung S21+ came with the skin-smoothing feature on my camera preset to be on.
Every ad on social media, as well, is some weight loss product. In fact, weight loss is a billion dollar industry, we're all so obsessed to lose weight and be smaller, more attractive.
Yes, you have this body positivity movement these days, but if we're all so body positive, why are we all still scrambling to look like the Photoshopped wonders in magazines, and the unreal images of Instagram Influencers plastered all over the Internet?
Simply put, mass media does have an effect on the masses. It's given hundreds of thousands of boys and girls eating disorders as a result, and has launch a billion dollar diet culture in our country.
Even as a Advertising major, I have to attest to the power the frequency and reach of a good ad can have. We are all so much more influenced in certain aspects than I think any of us really want to believe.
So while the news media, may not affect us like Laswell implies, we may just so be the puppets he depicts when it comes to more subtle influences in mass media such as body image, purchase decisions and brand loyalty.