Mass Communications Theory

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In the early days of mass communication theory—around the start of World War II—it was believed that the media were all-powerful while the audience consisted of nothing more than persuadable "sheep" awaiting instruction from their shepherd. Metaphorically speaking, mass communication was perceived as a "hypodermic needle" that could effortlessly and effectively inject ideas into the mind of the viewer. The belief that Nazi propaganda successfully injected anti-Semitism into the German thought process enhanced the credibility of the hypodermic-needle metaphor.

The U.S. quickly followed in the 1940s with patriotic propaganda films of its own. By this time, however, social scientists were already questioning whether mass communication functioned in this predictable way. Further attempts to influence human behavior cast reasonable doubt on the metaphor of the hypodermic needle.

New theories

The decades that followed witnessed increasing academic debate and a proliferation of new theories. Some 60 years later the true power of mass communication and its mechanism of action remain an enigma. Mass communication theorists have been grappling with such issues for years without reaching any firm conclusions.

Elihu Katz and Paul F. Lazarsfeld, in their 1955 book, "Personal Influence: The Part Played by People in the Flow of Mass Communications," suggested that mass communication alone is not all-powerful and that media alone are not always able to exert direct influence. Rather, they posited, interpersonal interaction is crucial to the success of persuasive messages.

According to this view, information flows from the mass media to opinion leaders, who then facilitate communication through discussion with others. These opinion leaders, the "gatekeepers," may be respected members of a community or they may be individuals who have positions in the media structure itself.

"Cultivation theory," another approach to explaining the effects of mass communication, was proposed in 1969 by George Gerbner at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communication. It suggested that the media do not change individual attitudes but rather social expectations.

Concerned with the effect of media content and with the totality of the pattern communicated through this content, cultivation theory claims that the media provide a common experience and therefore a shared worldview. Proponents of cultivation theory claim this effect is problematic because the world of the media does not necessarily reflect the world of reality. If, for example, TV presents a world that is more violent and untrustworthy than the real world, heavy TV viewers will see the world as frightening and dangerous.

While cultivation theory assumes that viewers are passive receivers of information, accepting everything they see on TV as reality, the uses-and-gratification model, formulated in 1972 by Karl Erik Rosengren, assumes that viewers select and use mass media to satisfy their own personal needs and desires. In other words, it is not the media that "use" the audience but rather the audience that "uses" the media to gratify its own needs.

The uses-and-gratification model posits that the decision to watch soap operas-or any other kind of program-is a conscious choice made by the viewer. For example, the viewer's notion of what the opposite sex finds attractive may be heavily influenced by what he or she chooses to watch on TV.

The agenda-setting model, initially tested in 1972 by Donald L. Shaw and Maxwell McCombs, claims that while the media do not tell people what to think, they do influence what people think about. The news media, for example, have to be selective in what they decide to present as news to the public. A TV network, for example, must decide which story should lead the newscast and how much time should be spent on that and each additional story.

For example, if a network decides to air as its top story a piece about advertising's continual portrayal of abnormally thin women, it can be predicted that viewers of the story will be influenced to think about their own body weight.

However, some viewers of the newscast may be prompted to think of their own need to lose weight, while others may see the newscast as a confirmation that they should be happy with their bodies as they are. If the news manager had rejected the story, viewers likely would not have thought about their own body images at that specific time. The agenda-setting model claims that the media can establish certain issues as salient in the mind of the public, but the public will make its own decisions about how to think about the issue.

Implications for advertising

Although more than half a century of mass communication research has provided different theoretical frameworks for explaining the effects of mass communication, a host of questions remains unanswered, particularly from the perspective of an advertiser; nonetheless, these theories can be useful given an understanding of their limitations.

The magic-bullet theory, claiming that TV viewers will believe every message shot in their direction, obviously underestimates viewers. The two-step flow hypothesis fails to explain what happens once people begin to discuss the issues made salient via the opinion leaders. Cultivation theory does not explain much about what effect a change in social expectations would have on the viewers.

While the uses-and-gratification model claims that the effect of the media will vary based on why the viewer is watching, critics argue that at best the model lets advertisers know that viewer motives will dictate how they will be affected by a particular ad. The agenda-setting model also gives viewers more credit, however, it does increase the salience of a product or idea that can be built on by the advertisers.

Although the theories presented here give explanations on how viewers as a group may be affected by the media, advertisers may find a number of persuasion theories—in addition to media effects models—quite useful in explaining the effects of advertising on their viewers.

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