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The cultural effects model of audience effects

The cultural effects model is a Marxist model audience effects, usually associated with neo-marxism and the Glasgow University Media Group.

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The media and the dominant ideology

According to the cultural effects model, the media contains ideological messages that reflect the values of media owners and professionals who expect audiences to agree with their preferred readings of events.

Points of view which are oppositional media owners and middle class journalists’ world views are generally kept out of the mainstream media through processes such as agenda setting and gatekeeping.

Ideological control through gradual exposure

Audiences are continually exposed to the dominant ideology and this has a gradual ‘drip-drip’ effect and over time audiences come to share the views of the rich and powerful. They also come to criticise those who have been demonised by the ideological framing of the elite: such as immigrants and those on benefits.

The cultural effects model recognises that audiences are active and that they interpret media content in diverse ways, but they do argue that interpretations are narrow due to long term ideological framing of media content.

Criticisms of the cultural effects model

Methodologically it is difficult to test any theory on long term media effects. It is almost impossible to isolate the independent effect that long term exposure to media content has over several years.

It seems increasingly unlikely that homogenous content has homogenous effects in the postmodern age of new media.

 

 

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The uses and gratifications model of audience effects

The uses and gratification model states that audiences are active users of media content and that they use the media to fulfill four main types of need.

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Diversion

People use media to escape from their daily routines.

In some cases media usage may make up for lack of satisfaction in work or personal life.

Personal relationships

The media may compensate for the decline of community and meaningful, intimate relationships

For example soap characters may be seen as companions in the absence of family or friends.

Personal identity

People may use characters to they identify with to help them make decisions in life.

People use Facebook to express identities in ways they can control.

Surveillance

People use the media to obtain information about the world, primarily the news.

Criticisms of the uses and gratifications model of audience effects

  • There is a lack of substantive research which supports this theory
  • Marxists argue it exaggerates audiences’ capacity to interpret media content, ignoring the power of agenda setting.
  • Postmodernists argue there are an even wider set of uses individuals make of media.

 

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The Two Step Flow Model of Audience Effects

The two-step flow model of audience effects was derived by Katz and Lazarsfeld (1965) which views the audience as active and influenced by influential opinion leaders, rather than directly by media content.

Katz and Lazarfeld argued that social networks were dominated by opinion leaders, who were influential people within social networks with the power to influence how others around them saw the world.

Opinion Leaders are exposed to media content, and they then share their interpretation of that content with the wider audience. Thus media content goes through two stages, with the wider audience being primarily influenced by the views of the active opinion leaders rather than being influenced directly by media content.

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Evaluations 

  • + The two step flow model recognises that most people watch media as part of a social network.
  • + This model might be especially useful for understanding the role of parents as opinion leaders.
  • – Of course there is a sense in which the media has a ‘direct effect’ – on the opinion leaders, so there may still be some validity in the hypodermic syringe model.
  • – This model may not apply to people who are socially isolated – and these could be the people who are most likely to be influenced by media content.
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The hypodermic syringe model of audience effects

The hypodermic syringe model believes that the media can have a direct and immediate effect on the audience. This model sees the audience as a ‘homogeneous mass’ (all the same), as passive and believing what they see in the media without questioning the content.

It is thus possible for content creators to use their media productions to manipulate vulnerable audiences into thinking or acting in certain ways.

The culture industry 

This theory of media effects is associated with neo-Marxists Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer in the 1940s, who had managed to escape Nazi Germany and resettled in America.

They noted that there were similarities between the ‘propaganda industry’ in Nazi Germany’ and what they called the ‘Culture Industry’ in the United States.

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Adorno and Max Horkheimer theorised that popular culture in the USA was like a factory producing standardized content which was used to manipulate a passive mass audience.

They argued that consumption of the ‘dumbed down’ content of popular culture made people passive and false psychological needs that could only be met and satisfied by the products of capitalism.

The ultimate function of the culture industry was thus to manipulate audiences into becoming good consumers and keeping capitalism going.

Further evidence that the media can have direct effects on a passive audience

One of the earliest examples is the audience response to Orson Welle’s radio adaptation of ‘War of the Worlds‘ in 1938.

War of the Worlds is a fictional story about Alien invaders coming from Mars and killing very large numbers of people in the process. The original radio adaptation was done in the style of a news report, and some of the listeners who tuned in after the show had begun (and so missed the introduction to it) actually believed they were hearing a news report, packed their cars and fled to the country.

Feminist sociologists such as Susi Orbach and Naomi Wolfe have highlighted how the ‘beauty myth’, especially the representations of size zero as normal, have encouraged an increase in eating disorders, especially among young women, as well as an increase in mental health problems.

More recent evidence suggests that the campaigns behind both Trump and Brexit used sophisticated targeted advertising to nudge voters into voting for Trump and Brexit, suggesting the media can have a very direct and immediate effect on specific populations (even if such campaigns didn’t treat the audience as a ‘mass’ and so this is only partial support the Hypodermic Syringe Model).

Imitation or Copycat Violence

One of the most researched areas of media effects is that surrounding the relationship between media violence and real-life violence. There is some evidence that media violence can ‘cause’ people to be more violence in real-life…

The Bandura ‘Bobo Doll’ experiment is evidence that media-violence can ‘cause’ children to act more aggressively when given the opportunity to do so. Bandura showed three groups of children real, film and cartoon examples of a bobo-doll being beaten with a mallet. A further group of children were shown no violence. The children were then taken to a room with lots of toys, but then ‘frustrated’ by being told the toys were not for them. They were then taken to a room with a mallet and a bobo-doll, and the children who had seen the violent examples (whether real, film, or cartoon) imitated the violence by beating the doll themselves, while the children who had seen no violence did not beat the doll.

Desensitization 

Newson (1994) theorised that the effects of media violence on children were more subtle and gradual. She argued that continued exposure to violence in films over several years ‘desenstised’ children and teenagers to violence and that they came to see violence as a norm, and as a possible way of solving problems. She also argued that television and film violence tended to encourage people to identify with the violent perpetrators, rather than the victims.

Newson’s research led to increased censorship in the film industry – for example, the British Board of Film was given the power to apply age certificates and T.V. companies agreed on a 9.00 watershed, before which shows would not feature significant sexual or violent scenes.

Criticisms of the hypodermic syringe model

Firstly, this model may have been true in the 1940s when the media was relatively new and audiences less literate, but in today’s new media age, audiences are more likely to criticise what they see rather than just believing it.

Secondly, the hypodermic syringe model treats audiences a ‘homogenous mass, but today’s audiences are more diverse than in the past, so this model is less applicable. This post offers a more nuanced counterpoint: it theorises that the masses were ‘willingly misled’ and thus co-produced a false reality in Nazi Germany in the 1930s and 40s.

Thirdly, it’s too simplistic a theory to explain social problems – societal violence has many causes, and it’s all too easy to scapegoat the media.

Fourthly, where Bandura’s imitative aggression model is concerned, this was carried out in such an artificial environment, it tells us little about how violence happens in real life.

Sources 

This post from Marxists.org provides a nice summary of Adorno and Horkheimer’s views on the culture industry.

Chapman et al (2016) Sociology AQA A-level Year 2 Student Book

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