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.
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.
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.
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
A Level Sociology of Media Bundle
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