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Critically compare and contrast the ‘Hypodermic Model’ of media effects theory with the ‘Uses and Gratifications’ approach

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Before it is possible to start an analysis of these two models, it is first essential to define them. The Hypodermic needle model, or the media effects model, is the earliest explanation of the way in which the mass media affects audiences. The basic premise is that whatever message the media (TV, radio or print) is giving, the audience will absorb it entirely and without question. This model views the media as a drug that is injected directly into the consciousness of the media consumer. According to Mick Underwood (The Hypodermic Needle Model)

“The folk belief in the Hypodermic Needle Model was fuelled initially by the rapid growth of advertising from the late nineteenth century on, coupled with the practice of political propaganda and psychological warfare during World War I.”

The Hypodermic Needle Model treats the audience as passive; the couch potato is a product of the Hypodermic Model. The audience are a mass and do not have the capability of free thought, rather the audience tunes into the media and is transfixed by whatever is represented. This model gives rise to the Neo-Marxist quote “TV is the new opiate of the masses”.

The Uses and Gratifications model is more sophisticated in that it credits the audience with slightly more involvement. Uses and Gratifications model basically states that rather than passively absorbing media content, the audience actively decides what to watch because of what they get out of it. The Uses and Gratifications Model treats the audience as a group of individuals, all with different needs and wants, who therefore all take different things from the media.

Although the Hypodermic model is severely dated, and has no academic support, it is still widely accepted by the public. The emphasis is placed on the effect that the media can have on ‘innocent children’. The Bulger killings are a prime example of the way in which this theory is generally accepted. The newspapers made great play on the fact that the two children convicted of the murder (aged 10 and 11 at the time) had watched one of the Childsplay films and that the method they used for killing Jamie Bulger was similar to some of the scenes from the film (Hanes, P The Advantages and Limitations of a Focus on Audience in Media Studies).

Very little sticks in the memory about the media coverage of the murderers up-bringing or past behavioural records. The fact that the two killers were convicted of murder shows that the film they watched was not accepted as mitigating circumstances, ie. as far as the court was concerned, it had little or no effect on the minds of the two killers.

It is this same mindset, however, which resulted in the ‘video nasties’ campaign of the early 80’s. The concern centred over the new opportunities presented by the home video player. The video nasty frenzy started in February 1982 “with a letter of complaint concerning an advert for SS Experiment Camp that featured in a trade magazine” (Morris, M and Wingrove, N. Bizarre 17 – 60). The 1983 Conservative election manifesto contained the pledge:

“We will also respond to the increasing public concern over obscenity and offences against public decency, which often have links with serious crime… such as the spread of violent and obscene video cassettes” (Morris, M and Wingrove, N. Bizarre 17 – 61).

By May 1984, the video recordings act was set up and many videos banned. The fact that many of the videos that were banned under the action weren’t obscene or explicit in any way escaped the censors. Some of the films didn’t even contain anything even connected with their title or artwork, for example, one banned film The Cannibal Man, is a study of a nervous breakdown. The filmmakers had obviously realised what the censors hadn’t – that they fact that the film was banned increased interest in what is otherwise a very un-remarkable piece of cinema.

A question as to the effectiveness of the Hypodermic Needle approach is also raised from this action. If these films contained the power to deprave and corrupt the viewer, how were the censors immune to this? This question is raised again and again; in the obscenity trial concerning the publication of Lady Chatterly’s Lover the prosecution asked the Jury whether it was the sort of thing “they would want their servants to read?” (Underwood, M. The Hypodermic Needle Model).

The inference here is that the servants would be affected by the ‘obscenity’ and the intellectually superior jury (presumably middle class) would be immune. This position treats the working class in the same way that children are treated in the pro-censorship argument, that they must be protected, that they don’t have the mental capacity to differentiate for themselves what is media and what is real life.

This attitude of protection has been around for a lot longer than we imagine. In approximately 470BC Plato wanted to ban poetry and allegorical tales because:

“children cannot distinguish between what is allegory and what isn’t, and opinions formed at that age are usually difficult to eradicate of change.” (Gormley, T. Media Effects)

There are have been similar outcry’s about theatre, easy access to books, and the cinema. No one would seriously argue the corrupting effects of poetry now; this suggests that Plato’s reaction was groundless and based on little or no fact. Logic would dictate, therefore, that similar arguments regarding television and video are equally as unfounded.

There have been studies into the effects of media portrayed violence. The most famous of which being the ‘Bobo Doll’ study conducted by Bandura, Ross and Ross. The study had children viewing television and ‘media’ portrayals of violence towards a Bobo doll. When the children were observed playing there was positive correlation between the action of the children and the action they had witnessed. However, the question arises, what else is there for a child playing with a Bobo doll to do with it, the whole concept of the toy is that it stays standing however often it is knocked down. The whole experiment is voided by a comment made by one of the subjects to her parent “look mummy, there’s the doll we have to hit” (Guantlett, D Moving Experience, 18). The participants were acting on the expectations placed on them by the experimenters, rather than the influence of the media.

Much of the research into media affects on children concentrates on correlations between representation and behaviour and “correlation is generally taken as evidence of causality.” (Buckingham, D Children Talking Television, 15)

As already discussed, the Uses and Gratifications approach has significant differences in the way it looks at media affects. Rather than concentrating on what the media does to it’s audience, this approach try’s to work out how the audience use the media. The emphasis “is placed on members of the audience actively processing media materials in accordance with their own needs.” (Gurevitch, M (ed.) Culture, Society and the Media, 241).

McQuail, identified four main uses and gratifications which audiences claimed from television – information, personal identity, integration and social interaction, and entertainment (Lodziak, C The Power of Television, 131). The idea of watching television for information and entertainment is fairly easy to comprehend; if a programme has neither of the above qualities it will have scant viewing figures. However, the issues of personal identity and social interaction are slightly more problematical.

The issue of personal identity, is more a psychological aspect than a sociological one. The viewer re-enforces their personal values by viewing other people with the same or similar values. This theory could also be reversed to say that viewers like to see characters with values which are completely opposite to their own, in this way they can criticise and discard these values. Thus representations of violence on television, rather than encouraging violent activity, would re-enforce social norms of non-violent behaviour.

“antisocial acts shown in drama series and films…are almost always ultimately punished or have other negative consequences for the perpetrator.” (Guantlett, G Ten Things Wrong With The Effects Model)

The final function – integration and social interaction are also problematic in their reasoning. Social integration could be necessitated in the same way in which personal identity is re-enforced, with television acting as an advocate of social norms – the television acts as a textbook for successful social inter-action and re-enforces what behaviour is necessary from successful social interaction. The second explanation of this function is that although, watching television (attentively) is essentially a private past-time, for people who live alone or have a limited social life it provides some form of companionship. This would explain the personally loaded letters film and television actors receive from fans, the fan counts the inter-action they perceive they have with an on-screen character as personal friendship and respond accordingly.

Finally, television viewing could provide a basis for social interaction, conversations about what was on television are common place, and are even encouraged by the television companies. A string of trailers for Eastenders had the slogan “Eastenders, Everyone’s talking about it” and featured groups of people holding conversations about the characters and the storylines. In this instance, a social connection is also being encouraged, the conversations were dealing with the feelings, emotions and qualities of the characters as though they were real people, if the soap character is a real person, then it is possible to interact with that person.

The above uses and gratifications indicate that the viewer is a discerning creature. That if the viewer feels insecure about their social position of the self-identity they will watch certain programme types to gain confidence about themselves and their world. Also, the watching of television can, as far as uses and gratifications theory is concerned be for reasons as simplistic as to gain information or to be entertained, an increase in “television consumption…has been largely at the expense of household chores, ‘resting’ ‘sitting’ and ‘doing nothing in particular’” (Lodziak, C The Power of Television, 131). This would indicate, that the viewer is just avoiding doing less entertaining things that were once part of everyday life.

Another gratification of watching the television is wish fulfilment. A viewer could decide to watch a certain programme in order to make up for dissatisfactions with their life. This relates to the social interaction explanation offered above, however it goes deeper than this

“two major groups using television for diversionary purposes were ‘women professing an instrumental rather than an expressive orientation to their work and older people who felt dissatisfied with their jobs’” (Lodziak, C The Power of Television, 132)

The compensation for features of everyday life which are unsatisfactory is a natural human trait. One of Jung’s theories as to the origin of dreams was “compensations for things which one lacks in waking life, such as a hidden wish or conflict” (Berry, R Jung a Beginner’s Guide, 44). It would therefore be natural for humankind to use television, a different sort of fantasy world, in the same compensatory manner.

To draw these two assessments together, one of the main differences between the hypodermic needle approach and uses and gratifications theory is the treatment of the audience. Hypodermic needle theory treats the audience as “blank sheets of paper on which media messages can be written” (Hanes, P The Advantages and Limitations of a focus on Audience in Media Studies). It treats the audience as an amorphous mass which the media can mould in any way they wish, the audience has no capacity for reason and no pre-conceptions with which to compare the media message.

However, uses and gratifications theory states that “members of an audience will have prior attitudes and beliefs which will determine how effective media messages are” (Hanes, P The Advantages and Limitations of a focus on Audience in Media Studies). This does not refute the fact that the media attempts to influence its audience, one only has to consider the huge amount of advertising the public is subjected too to realise this. However, the crucial difference being that uses and gratification theory recognises that a mass audience is made up of individuals all with the capacity for independent thought.

Further crucial differences are also evident. The majority of research and discussion into the hypodermic needle model is concerned with “violence, often bundled incongruously with sex” (Guantlett, D Moving Experiences, 60) and the negative effects thereof. The theory as a whole seems to be very pessimistic in outlook, advocating censorship and the protection of innocence. This seems to be a knee-jerk reaction in the same league as Plato’s comments of over two thousand years ago. The uses and gratifications approach has a more positive outlook, crediting television with re-enforcing social norms that help facilitate the smooth running of modern society.

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