An Examination of the Magic Bullet Theory (Part 3)

An Examination of the Magic Bullet Theory (Part 3)
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 As discussed in the second article of the series, the hypodermic syringe model is based on a number of assumptions, many of which have been proven to be incorrect. When assessing the value of this theory in its original context and today, it is critical to be aware of the assumptions. So, let’s take a look:



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  1. People React Uniformly to Stimuli

The magic bullet theory assumes that everyone reacts to stimuli in the same manner. It is not concerned with the effect of mass media on individuals but instead focuses on the mass. Consequently, the theory ignores personal differences among members of the audience.

A limitation of this assumption is that it ignores the fact that mass media is not the only source of influence on human behavior. Personal values, beliefs, attitudes will inform how someone receives and is influenced by a mass media message.

  1. Passive and Powerless Audiences

The magic bullet theory views the audience as a kind of sitting duck, which cannot extract itself from being injected or shot. The theory assumes that once the message is broadcast and diffused through mass media, the audience cannot escape from it. Furthermore, the theory relies on the audience accepting the messages without questioning.

However, it is generally accepted that audiences are not as easily swayed by media messages. Later research has demonstrated that mass media consumers can critically think about the messages and will not necessarily accept everything they receive from the mass media. Today there exists a wide range of media sources, from traditional ones such as television and radio to more recent ones, including blogs and online discussion forums. Audiences are exposed to alternatives through this variety of mass media, ranging from the traditional to the digital.

  1. Mass Media Effects Are Immediate and Powerful

Once a message has been diffused through mass media and received by audiences, the theory assumes the powerful effects of this message will be felt immediately. This seemed to be confirmed by the October 1938 ‘panic broadcast’ of War of the Worlds. However, later reports revealed that the effects of this broadcast were largely exaggerated. Although some listeners believed it to be a news bulletin recounting a live alien invasion, the mass did not panic as had been indicated by some observers and media outlets.

The degree to which mass media influence, control and alter human behavior is still a topical issue. However, the effects of media are no longer assumed to be as strong and immediate as outlined in the theory. For example, you do not go and buy a specific brand of toothpaste immediately upon seeing an advertisement on television. You might not even change your behavior and still buy the same brand you usually purchase.



As you have already discovered in the last two previous articles, there are several limitations to the assumptions underpinning the magic bullet theory. These limitations and others have prompted several scholars to heavily criticize and discredit the theory. The main criticisms leveled against the theory in general, as opposed to the individual assumptions, are the following:

  • The theory is oversimplified in its analysis of media effects.
  • The theory lacks a solid empirical foundation.
  • The results from ‘The People’s Choice’ disprove this theory.



One of the main criticisms leveled against the magic bullet theory is that it oversimplifies the effects of mass media messages on audiences. Media is not as powerful and audiences are not as powerless as assumed by the theory. Audiences do think, evaluate and assess messages of mass media. In some cases, they do not accept the messages communicated by mass media.

More importantly, the effects of mass media messages are not as direct as presented by the theory. The belief that mass media is the sole influence on human behavior is simplistic. The beliefs, attitudes, past experiences, values, education, living situations and other personal characteristics influence how an individual receives and interprets a message from the mass media. Some people will be predisposed to accept some messages while others will be predisposed to reject them. By assuming that the mass audience is uniform, the magic bullet theory fails to capture this important aspect of media effects.


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