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Screen Capture from Albert Bandura film 1961,  © under Youtube Standard License.

Because propaganda was again employed extensively during the Second World War, research on media effects received renewed interest by scholars who questioned its exact efficacy. In addition, alarm over the rise in violence after the war accompanied the advent of television, sparking off a moral panic.

However, establishing causation, as pointed out earlier, is extremely difficulty in media research due to the multiple factors that are present. Also most media research relies on content analysis and surveys where the subjects are asked to self-report. This has been criticised as unreliable, and at best can only establish a correlation. In order to demonstrate causation, all other factors must be controlled.  Usually this can only take place under laboratory conditions and not in a real-life context where factors are complex and unpredictable. This did not prevent researchers from trying and in 1961 Albert Bandura’s controversial “Bobo doll experiment” demonstrated how, in a laboratory context, children’s behaviour can model itself on adult violence.

 However, critics again pointed out that media responses in real-life are socially and culturally entrenched. Audiences actively construct meanings from the media, unlike laboratory animals. Humans also have the cognitive ability to discern and make decisions, and their prior knowledge and experiences shape these decisions. While immediate media effects, such as people carrying an umbrella after rain is forecast can be demonstrated, not everyone goes shopping after watching an advertisement. To accommodate these observations, the term media influences began to replace effects. These observations also led to two new lines of thinking: firstly, what causes audiences to respond positively to the weather forecast, and secondly, what filters audiences employ to inform their shopping decisions?

Limitations of the Minimal Effects Models

Conceptually and methodologically, the minimal effects models have limitations. Much of the empirical data was gleaned from research on the media’s impact on voters during elections in the US. Using voting as the dependent variable poses problems. Chiefly, it does not measure effect accurately. While the media may not change a voter’s decision, it can still influence the voter’s support. If, after consuming the media messages, a voter is more convinced than ever, that in itself is still an effect. Sometimes, a voter’s confidence in a candidate may be weakened but not to the point of voting for the candidate’s rival and this effect (of weakened conviction) will not show up in the data. The primary method of data collection for these studies are surveys, and this has been criticised as unreliable, as the voters are required to recall and report their own vote as well as decision making process. Thus, they have to rely on their memory of what are likely to be transient moments. For example, they are unlikely to be aware of what they were thinking of when listening to a political debate or advertisement.

Discussion Questions

If, as the last paragraph suggests, audiences “have the cognitive ability to discern and make decisions, and their prior knowledge and experiences shape” their choices can you identify any examples of advertising that is directed at such a discerning audience?

 Can you deduce why the advertiser might have chosen such a ‘minimal effects’ model of advertising in the example?

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Two-step flow model

Uses and gratification model

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