Consumption of media in our society has soared over the last decade and, as a result, audiences are becoming exceedingly more active in their interaction with media. Audience plays a dominate role in the creation of any successful media piece and has led to the invention of numerous theories to explain the ways in which audiences process various media texts. This level of audience engagement determines whether an audience is passive or active, in regards to the amount of participation the audience has with the intended message encoded by the creator of the text (Hall 1999, p. 509).
An active audience is defined as one that challenges the message, forming their own questions based on their specific cultural influences and life experiences. Conversely, a passive audience is one that lacks engagement with the media text, simply accepting the encoded message, giving rise to the common reference to an audience as ‘sheep’. Some of the most well-known audiences theories conceptualized to date would be the ‘Hypodermic Needle Theory’, its child theory the ‘Two Step Flow Model’ (Lazarsfeld & Katz 1955, p. 309), and the more recently developed ‘Uses and Gratifications Theory’ (Blumler & Katz 1974, p. 318). These theories can then be used to assess the engagement of modern audiences with media, such as the growing number of viewers of beauty themed bloggers on the popular internet site of YouTube. These theories also address the way in which they become ambassadors for brands, how they market products to their fan base and why it is that fans repeatedly return to their channel.
The first theory mentioned, the Hypodermic Needle theory, argues that audiences are passive in their consumption of media. Conceptualized in the 1920s and later used to explain the rise of Nazi Germany, the Hypodermic Needle theory is a linear, top down media theory, created to explain that effects of propaganda on mass media consumption. The theory model later resurged famously in 1938 following wide spread panic after the live broadcast of a reading of H. G. Wells’ ‘War of the Worlds’ and has been further modernized in the form of the horror classic The Ring (Kirah 2010, p. 27). This model assumes that the audience has little to no control over the way in which media influences public opinion and the effect it has on behavioral change. As a linear theory, it suggests that media and its intended message flow in a linear fashion from the creator to receiver, with no interference. It also assumes that the audience wholly and blindly accepts the messages presented regardless of individual experiences. The Hypodermic Needle theory has since been discredited by Paul Lazarsfeld and associates after conducting studies on voting patterns during the electoral campaign of Franklin D. Roosevelt, proving many voters were unaffected by propaganda revolving Roosevelt’s campaign (1944, p. 151). Arthur Berger argues that ‘It does not seem reasonable to argue that everyone gets the same message’ (1995, p. 87) and rather that there are preferred readings intended by the author that the audience should, but may not understand.
The Hypodermic Needle Theory later gave rise to the Two Step Flow Model (Lazarsfeld & Katz 1955, p. 309). After the discrediting of the Hypodermic Needle Theory, Lazarsfeld suggested that audiences are far more likely to be influenced by opinion leaders, who pay close attention to mass media and pass on their interpretation of the media’s message (Lazarsfeld & Katz 1955, p. 309).. This new model, though assuming audiences are more active than the Hypodermic Needle Theory, still argues that audiences are passive in their consumption of media and its message.
It is the Two Step Flow Model of the passive audience focused theories that is most aptly applied to the audiences of YouTube. The popular video sharing website has over 1.3 billion users, who watch an average of 5 billion videos every day (Statistic Brain 2016), statistics which haven’t gone unnoticed in the advertising world. Of those 5 billion videos viewed each day, a large portion are marketed directly to lovers of fashion and beauty, with beauty bloggers totaling over 123 million individual subscriptions (Pixability 2015) and over 780 different Beauty & Fashion categorized content creators. Thus, advertising companies and big name beauty brands seek to widen their audience by using the file-sharing site as a means by which to promote their products with “views of brand-produced beauty content on YouTube growing 35% faster than views of overall beauty content” (Pixability 2015). These companies also seek out popular content creators to become opinion leaders for their brand via sponsorship, either employing them as ambassadors for the products or sending them entire product lines free of charge in the hopes they will be featured in their videos. This form of the Two-Step Flow Model employs these YouTubers to market their products directly to their fan base, using their familiar and trusted faces as figure heads.
In contrast to the aforementioned theories, the Uses and Gratifications theory considers media audiences to be active in their media consumption. Considered a direct response to the Hypothermic Needle theory, the Uses and Gratifications theory of communication outlines and explains how audiences use media to fulfill their personal needs. Conceptualized as early as the 1940’s by Herta Herzog (West & Turner 2010), the Uses and Gratifications theory was formally introduced by Jay Blumler and Elihu Katz (1974, p. 318). The method is a bottom up media theory with varying iterations that claims texts are open and considers the audience to be extremely active and selective in their decoding of the content’s message. It also suggests that there is no one universal derivative message, but rather different interpretations that may be made by the viewer. These interpretations are then used to fulfill both the audience’s singular and collective needs and gratifications. These needs have since been split into five broad categories; affective needs, cognitive needs, social integrative needs, personal integrative needs and relaxation needs. Compared to the Hypodermic Needle theory, the Uses and Gratifications theory considers the audience as important for the continuation of the media source, due to the fact that the viewer may choose to stop consuming should it fail to satisfy their needs. The Uses and Gratification method is far more applicable to modern media examples given “the theory’s staying power is unequivocal, as evidenced by its continually evolving application venues” (Lin 1996, p. 574). That being said, this theory can underestimate the power media has on influencing the needs and gratification of the audience unconsciously and also assumes that the audience consuming the media is active in nature.
When applied to the audience of YouTube, the Uses and Gratifications theory makes apparent how active the viewers are towards their chosen media. Considering that, without the dedication and interest from the viewers, the YouTube content creators would find it hard to continue making videos. Thus “every attempt possible is made to strengthen the illusion of reciprocity and rapport in order to offset the inherent impersonality of the media” itself (Horton & Wohl 1956). YouTuber content creators will appeal to the viewer’s inherent need to experience the beautiful, to find models to imitate, find distraction or diversion, satisfy a curiosity and be informed about beauty (Berger 1995, p. 87). Once they have built up an illusionary rapport with the viewer “the audience, in its turn, is expected to contribute to the illusion by believing in it, and by rewarding the persona’s ‘sincerity’ with ‘loyalty’” (Horton & Wohl 1956). It is this loyalty and fulfillment of their needs that leads the viewer to actively choose to subscribe to their channel and view the creator’s content. Without the active involvement of the viewer, the YouTuber would find it extremely hard to gain income from advertising or sponsorships and to continue to produce content.
As we advance as an audience we, as a society, are becoming more and more active in our consumption of media. The evolution of audience goes hand in hand with the development of audience theory in attempts to understand different media audiences, be they singular viewers or mass audiences. The Hypodermic Needle Theory, its extension in the Two-Step Flow Model and the Uses and Gratification Method can all be applied to modern media audiences to explain how it is we interact with media, what keeps us coming back and what pleasure we gain from its consumption. Given the ubiquity of technology in modern society and the ability to flick from one media text to another, it’s clear that passive media consumption is quickly becoming a thing of the past.
Hall, Stuart 1999/1973, ‘Encoding/Decoding’ in During, Simon (ed), The Cultural Studies Reader, Routledge, p. 507-517
Kirah, Steven J 2010, ‘Media Effects and Theories’, Media and Youth, Wiley, Chichester, p. 27
Berger, Arthur 1995, Essentials of Mass Communication Theory, Sage, London, p. 87-116
Lazarsfeld, P, Berelson, B, Gaudet, H 1944, The People’s Choice: How the Voter Makes Up His Mind in a Presidential Campaign, Columbia University Press, New York, p. 151
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