Audience theories (decoding hypodermic gratifications)

There are two different views on what audience really is and means. Analogy and critical thinking ensues. Are audiences, individuals who have their own view and experience with media like atoms that are cut off from each other (a popular saying amongst media critics)? Or do we all have a shared experience no matter who we are or where we are from because ultimately the media product we experience is the same? Or do you like me thing is a combination of both?

Now that the thought-provoking rhetorical questioning session is over we can have look at some wacky (and persuasive) theories:

The Effects Model (aka Hypodermic Theory)- Like the name suggests this model is based on the effect that media has on audiences. Media was thought to have a profound and influential effect on its audiences to the point that media can even bring about behaviour change. This theory was incredibly popular in the 1940-50. Due to the rise of technology such as radio and television so did advertising and propaganda practises. These were main strategies that many companies and governments utilised to ‘effect’ audience and people in general (the Nazi’s heavy emphasis on using media to promote their views is a key example of this).

The other name for the effects theory, the hypodermic needle theory is based off the actual medical equipment. The media content is ‘injected’ into our brains and we can’t reject it.

It was believed that media can have great impact on a population’s thought process as long as the desired message is delivered via the media in a powerful, effective and even entertaining manner. The media is described as a bullet shot in the viewers heads (this analogy basically illustrates the theory’s idea that people can not escape the effect of media, bullets are hard to dodge after all). This was inspired by the persuasive industries and their popularity (the Nazi’s rise is often accredited to their use of media) that has served as strong basis for the theory: that we can’t help but follow the message of the media.

Joseph Goebbels and Leni Riefenstahl. One is the propaganda mastermind behind Nazi’s campaigns and one is a pioneering film director who created some of the most infamous (and well made) propaganda films.

“Propaganda should be popular, not intellectually pleasing. It is not the task of propaganda to discover intellectual truths.”  ― Joseph Goebbels Geobbles believed in the dominant impact of  propaganda as illustrated by his policies. This quote also echoes that one reason that everyone thought of propaganda media as 100% accepted, almost hypnotic, is due to its popularity.

Criticisms of the theory (because socio-psychology theories can’t be without them) include that it portrayals media only in a negative light and the lack of conclusive research that links human behaviour to media which disregard the fact that people have a choice whether or. People still can’t seem to agree on the real effects of media have on our psychology. By placing blame on the media, it also takes away responsibility from the people and consumers themselves. My advice: don’t ever draw conclusions since individuals react to media differently but never disregard the potential for media to inspire and engage.

Despite its major downfalls and age this theory is the most popular amongst the press. You an making a wealthy living for the number of penny received for every news and articles that blames films, games, music and whatever form of media that’s currently trending (media doesn’t realise how hypocritical they are or don’t care). A major example is the Columbian shootings where blame was place on artist Marilyn Manson and his music and other facts such as the fps game Doom- thankfully media is also capable of looking at other, more sensible factors; see Michael Moore’s ‘Bowling for Columbine’.

Moore questions the hypodermic effects of media on the possible causes for Columbine. Whilst nudging at easy gun access and media’s continued obsession of instigating fear in people.

Uses and gratification theory- This theory focuses on the audience more than anything else. It’s more about what appeals to specific types of audiences due to their personality and needs (that’s why the word gratification is in the name) rather than a hypnotic draw that the effects theory tries to explain.

The theory is divided into four types of gratification:

Diversion (using media as a way to distract themselves from the outside world and into the fantasy/fictional confines of media); otherwise known as escapism. A lot of video games have detailedly developed worlds that appeals to the player’s need to escape into fantasy (i.e. Skyrim).

Personal relationships (we consume media to feel like a part of a community, a socialising tool basically). Even media (soaps) portrayals everyday people conversing about what happened on ‘Reality TV Show X’ or ‘Dramatic TV series X’ last night. It’s the reason why advertisers are so enthralled with getting audiences to recommend or share a media product with others. Peer pressure sells even stale cakes.

Personal identity (media is seen as a way to represent and personify individuals/ourselves). Examples of this is littered throughout nearly all profile or bio pages; people would include their interests in order to give an impression of themselves, 9 out of 10 times these would include media.

For instance this tsr user here is a gamer who enjoys Come Dine With Me. Our interests often speaks about who we are.

For instance this tsr user here is a gamer who enjoys Come Dine With Me. Our interests often speaks about who we are.

Surveillance (people consume media because they want to know what’s going on in the world, a desire to learn and find out new information). People’s obsession with news in any form is a good example of this. Whether its about the world in general (i.e The Guardian) or news about specific topics (i.e Wired). Documentaries also fit under this category.

There are still problems with this revolutionary theory, for one it doesn’t consider the fact that we are the products of our society and our social groups despite being individual (the individualism also makes it hard to measure and conduct research on). Moreover the focus has been removed from the media products itself.

Reception Study: The encoding and decoding model- Another theory that focuses heavily on its audience, this time the viewer’s race, age, gender and whatever defines them is the basis of how they perceive media. The key hypothesis is that we are interpret things distinctly due to our diverse circumstances (demographic). However like code that has to be decoded, we can create code with specific meanings (like how directors create movies or games) but the interpretation of that code differs from person to person. The process of trying to create media that can be coded (made) in a way (i.e. by sticking to a particular genre) that can garner a general decoding from audiences (so they see some parts of the media as the same as others; I mean we can all agree that Doctor Who is a timey-wimey sci-fi), is called preferred reading.

An extract from a large research conducted by Phd film buffs in America. It shows that whilst some tastes are universal, there are concurrences between people’s race/culture and the cultural and racial focus of a film. For one you can see the likes of ‘Malcolm X’, ‘The Joy Luck Club’, ‘Mi Familia’ appear in their respective ethnicities’ lists.

Stuart Hall was the one to concieve this whopper of a theory and in doing so, allowed people to perceive the meaning of media in a different perspective. Not only does it reject the fact that users are passive it also emphasises that a media creators’ original intent and messages are not the true meaning. The meaning in Hall’s theory is a combination of: the coders’ conveyance of a media’s meaning and an audience’s own decoding (interpretation based upon the individual) of that meaning.

If all that code analogy wasn’t confusing enough here’s the breakdown on the three types of decodings/positions, Stuart Hall (the original conceiver of this elaborate theory) came up with:

Dominant position (hegemonic)- The viewers decodes (interpret) the media exactly how it was coded (how the creators intended it to convey) and accepts (agrees with the message it sends) this decoding. There are minimal misunderstandings as to how the work is perceived. For instance if I were being dominant when watching Doctor Who I’d accept the cheesy and at times non-sensual plots because the writers made it that way; I’d not mind the fact that the main character’s is always a white male with a pretty female companion at all and laugh at every joke whether bad or not.

Oppositional position- Same as dominant expect this time the consumer does not agree with the content’s meaning even if they know what in the world is going on in a piece of media (I wish I could say the same for my initial encounter with this theory). Reasons can vary from the viewer’s cultural backgrounds, religion, ideology or any other social situations they are in (so propaganda won’t turn you into a brainwashed hypocrite if you don’t agree with it). If I were oppositional, I’d be really ticked off by Doctor Who’s plot holes and outer image of being targeted towards teenage white males. Also I would not agree with the Doctor’s fashion tastes.

Negotiated position- The 50/50 of all positions, this one describes the consumer both rejecting, accepting or tweaking the code (media) in a light that suits their own opinions and interests. So it’s not giving in to all of the original creators intent but not completely ignoring the media’s meanings either (I do this, a lot). If I were negotiated (in which I am, 90% when consuming media), I’d criticise the moments where Doctor Who’s writing is unimaginative or give off an impression of being nonrepresentational (though not on the grounds of interspecies gay relationships or aliens that look like potatoes) but can still write an article about why I love the show for its sense of humour, themes on consequence, family and sci-fi lore. Following this theory, reasons such as my overly curiously brain and cultural acceptance of British witty (no matter the barminess) may suffice with my decoding of this piece of media.

From an episode of Doctor Who.

Flaws exist for this model of course: it only sees media as a set of products with injected with intended meanings and semiotics which really isn’t true if the creator(s) did not do that in the first place- sometimes people just make pure entertainment (i.e. I really can’t detect Freudian nor Pluto or social commentary in Tetris or anything produced by CBeebies). Plus who can truly define a person’s culture, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender etc. The human mind is too erratic for conclusive definitions. Now you know why sociologist, psychologists and other theorists hassle over this that so much.

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