As you have already discovered in the previous article, the magic bullet theory, also known as the hypodermic needle or direct effects model, has brought a major contribution to the evolution of the communication process in the contemporary society. Today, this theory is still being reviewed by students and communication theorists.
The magic bullet was most popular in the 1930s. Even at that time, it was criticized by several communication scholars. It is important to consider the context within which it emerged by analyzing the key events and research studies of the time.
The 1920s and 1930s saw a sharp rise in the popularity of mass media. People began to pay attention to mass media and, more importantly, to how they affected and influenced people. As with many newly appearing phenomena, there were several critics of mass media and the dangers they presented to society and the individuals exposed to them.
The 1930s was also a time when people viewed mass media as a tool of propaganda. At the same time, the advertising industry was being established. Advertising firms were using the media to diffuse persuasive communication in the form of advertisements of goods and services. Their aim was indeed to influence the behavior of consumers.
Around that time, Hitler utilized with great success mass media (radio and films) to promote his ideas of Nazism. His use of mass media was critical in garnering support for his cause in Germany. Several thinkers opposed to his ideas had fled to the United States. They had experienced first-hand the power of the media and the powerlessness of the people who are easily swayed by messages communicated through mass media.
A key contemporary research was the series of Payne Fund studies into the effect of films on the behavior of young children in the late 1920s and early 1930s. The researchers found a direct correlation between the films viewed by children and aspects of their behavior, especially characters they included in their imaginary worlds. Although the Payne Fund studies have since been discredited as lacking scientific rigor, they played a major role in the thinking of the time, within which emerged the magic bullet theory.
Behaviorism was the main philosophical thinking of the time. Animal experimentalist John B. Watson is credited to have begun this field with his theories. He argued that all human action is a response to stimuli from the external environment. It gave rise to the then commonly held belief that humans are conditioned to act based on the stimuli around them, that is, in response to what is happening in their world. Some communication theorists applied these behaviorist beliefs in their study of mass media. They argued that mass media determined the actions of those people who consumed them.
The October 1938 radio broadcast of H. G. Well’s novel War of the Worlds and the reaction that ensued seemed to confirm the validity of the magic bullet theory. This broadcast is often dubbed the panic broadcast. At the start of and throughout the broadcast, there were several announcements that it was a work of fiction. However, several listeners who tuned in during the broadcast missed those announcements. The broadcast narrated the landing of hostile aliens in the region of New Jersey. During and directly after the broadcast, there were several calls to emergency services as panic seemed to spread.
The magic bullet theory makes several assumptions, several of which have been proven wrong. It is important to be aware of the assumptions when evaluating the worth of this theory both in its original context and today. The assumptions are the following:
- People react uniformly to stimuli.
- Audiences are passive and powerless.
- Effects of mass media are immediate and powerful.