There are three major theories of audience response to media. These are the Hypodermic Syringe Theory, the Uses and Gratification Theory and the Preferred, Oppositional, Negotiated and Aberrant Theory. I will try to explain and analyse each theory in turn, talking about their strengths and weaknesses as well as providing some examples that hopefully help prove why they are useful but limited.
The Hypodermic Syringe Theory (also known as the Hypodermic Needle Theory as shown in the picture above) originated in the 1920s and 1930s and propagates the idea that we absorb ideas and information passively. One of the most famous and well known examples involves an experiment with a Bobo Doll conducted by Albert Bandura in the 1960s. The experiment involved a child being placed into a room with activities such as stickers and stamps, while in the other corner, toys that were marked “adult only” such as a mallet and an inflatable Bobo doll were placed. While the child was distracted playing with the toys, an adult would come into the room and start using the mallet to beat and abuse the Bobo doll and after a period of time (usually 10 minutes), the child was taken out of the room and placed into a room where they were told the toys were only for adult use and not for children. When the child was frustrated they started to beat up a Bobo Doll, shouting and screaming at it, in a room full of aggressive and passive toys.
At the conclusion of this experiment, Bandura surmised that the children who were exposed to the violent/aggressive situation with the Bobo Doll were more likely to exhibit aggressive behaviour after being exposed to aggressive situations compared to those who were exposed to non-violent situations. He also found that males tended to display violent tendencies more than women.
A real-life example would be the tragic case of Jamie Bulger, a two year old toddler who was lured to some train tracks by a pair of ten year olds called Jon Venables and Robert Thompson where upon he was brutally beaten, tortured and murdered. The Sun newspaper suggested that the boys had been influenced by a scene from a “Chucky” film called Child’s Play 3 and that violent media was to blame. While later psychological tests on the killers showed that they neither liked horror films nor were living with the parent who had rented the film at the time, the debate on violent media influencing children rages to this day. Games like Grand Theft Auto court controversy for their content despite obviously not being marketed at children while the recent Medal of Honour titles courted controversy for taking place during a real-world ongoing conflict and some suggested it was designed to portray Muslims as the “bad guys” in a game and due to the Afghan conflict at the time, that it would cause young and impressionable people to think they are the bad guys in real life too.
The Uses and Gratifications Theory originated in the 1940s as Hertza Herzog looked at uses and gratifications in relation to why people chose certain media. She conducted her research by interviewing fans of soap opera and identified three types of gratification; emotional, wishful thinking and learning. In 1969, Jay Blumer and Denis McQuail studied a general election in the UK in order to examine people’s motives for watching political programs during the election. This research helped to lay the groundwork for the uses and gratifications theory as they began to see audiences as active viewers and participants who watch and consume media to suit their own needs.
“…not what the media do to people, but what people do with the media?” – Blumler & McQuail
For example some people watch romance or ensemble shows because they are lonely and want the sense of accompaniment and satisfaction that comes from a group of friends, while some play action videogames or watch high-octane movies to indulge in their fantasy of being an action hero or living more adventurous and exciting lives. I asked our class why they enjoy playing videogames and the replies were; to do things they couldn’t do in real life, the satisfaction from beating a game, because they have an obsession, to have fun, because they identify with the characters and to pass time.
People might watch TV because they struggle to deal with personal issues and a character who goes through similar problems can be inspiring or comforting, while people typically go on websites for things they are interested in to gain knowledge, whether it be something more general knowledge like Wikipedia or to become up to date on world affairs through BBC News etc.
Another example would be that in the modern political climate, UKIP are a seemingly popular party and have recently gained an MP and may gain another depending on the results of a by-election. However a lot of people who vote for UKIP say that they do so not necessarily because they are a party member but because they feel a frustration at the current major political parties of the Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats and that voting for UKIP let’s their voices be heard, so people vote out of frustration and get a sense of satisfaction.
The Reception Theory in media is based on the reception theory work of Hans-Robert Jauss in the 1960s, where it had been applied to literary text, although it was later Stuart Hall who adapted the theory for media. In contrast to the Uses and Gratifications theory which dealt with the reason that an individual consumed media, the Reception Theory is about how they interpret the media. For instance if there was political propaganda (which could be akin to the Hypodermic Needle Theory mentioned earlier) it could be interpreted in several different ways; someone could understand it and take away exactly what was intended (the preferred reading), someone could accept or debate parts of it as they may have their own ideals or agenda (negotiated reading), someone may reject the propaganda outright (oppositional reading) or someone may take away and entirely different meaning than that which was intended (aberrant reading).
Another example would be the documentary film Supersize Me in which Morgan Spurlock decides to eat nothing but McDonalds food for thirty days in order to see just how bad fast food + processed food is for you. Over the course of the thirty days he gained about 25 pounds in weight, doubled his risk of heart failure and disease, developed massive cravings, his cholesterol went through the roof and he felt depressed and exhausted, suffering from headaches and mood swings. While the purpose (or at least what I took away from the film) is to educate people on the dangers of not only over-eating but eating the wrong things, it could be interpreted in several different ways based on the Reception Theory.
A preferred reading of Supersize Me would be that someone watches the documentary and understands that fast-food (and by extension processed food) is bad for you and adjusts their diet and lifestyle accordingly, where possible. A negotiated reading of Supersize Me would be that someone watches it and agrees with parts of it, that fast food and processed food are bad for you, but may still enjoy them in moderation (although this could be part of a preferred reading to an extent).
An oppositional reading of Supersize Me would be that someone watches it and disagrees with it completely and maybe goes to a Burger King or McDonalds then. Meanwhile an aberrant reading of Supersize Me would someone who watches it and takes away something unrelated to what Morgan Spurlock intended and perhaps saw it as a spoof documentary or did not take onboard the information relayed by the film and the experimental diet.
Each of the three theories discussed have their strengths and weaknesses. They are each valid arguments or ideas for how an audience responds to media, but the more you read about them the more you realise they work in conjunction with each other. Their weakness is that on their own they only give a very small idea of the larger picture. While the Hypodermic Needle Theory may have been applicable to the Jamie Bulger case and Uses and Gratifications could be applicable to why anyone watches a TV show or reads a particular book or newspaper, the Reception Theory helps to understand what people take away from it, beyond a sense of happiness, satisfaction or education (Uses and Gratification theory) which when combined makes the theories useful tools for understanding how audiences respond to media.