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Hypodermic needle model

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The hypodermic needle model is a model of communications also referred to as the magic bullet perspective. Essentially, this model holds that an intended message is directly received and wholly accepted by the receiver. The model emerged from the Marxist Frankfurt School of intellectuals in the 1960s to explain the rise of Nazism in Germany.

The "hypodermic needle theory" implied mass media had a direct, immediate and powerful effect on its audiences. The mass media in the 1940s and 1950s were perceived as a powerful influence on behaviour change. Several factors contributed to this "strong effects" theory of communication, including: the fast rise and popularization of radio and television, the emergence of the persuasion industries, such as advertising and propaganda, the Payne Fund studies of the 1930s, which focused on the impact of motion pictures on children, and Hitler's monopolization of the mass media during WWII to unify the German public behind the Nazi party.

The most famous example of what would be considered the result of the magic bullet or hypodermic needle model was the 1938 broadcast of The War of the Worlds and the subsequent reaction of its mass American audience.

The phrasing "hypodermic needle" is meant to give a mental image of the direct, strategic, and planned infusion of a message into an individual. This view entails a conceptually fatal flaw in that it tends to ignore matters such as interpretation which are crucial aspects to the communicative process.

A more modern version is the two-step flow of communication theory.

This view of propaganda took root after World War I and was championed by theorists such as Lasswell in his pioneer work Propaganda Technique in the World War (1927). He noted that the people had been duped and degraded by propaganda during the war. Works such as Lasswell's expressed a fear of propaganda. Lasswell based his work on a stimulus-response model rooted in learning theory. Focusing on mass effects, this approach viewed human responses to the media as uniform and immediate. E. D. Martin expressed this approach thusly: "Propaganda offers ready-made opinions for the unthinking herd" (cited in Choukas, 1965, p. 15). Known as the "Magic Bullet" or "Hypodermic Needle Theory" of direct influence effects, it was not as widely accepted by scholars as many books on mass communication indicate. The magic bullet theory was not based on empirical generalizations from research but rather on assumptions of the time about human nature. People were assumed to be "uniformly controlled by their biologically based 'instincts' and that they react more or less uniformly to whatever 'stimuli' came along" (Lowery & DefFleur, 1995, p. 400). As research methodology became more highly developed, it became apparent that the media had selective influences on people.


Davis, D.K. & Baron, S.J. (1981). A History of Our Understanding of Mass Communication. In: Davis, D.K. & Baron, S.J. (Eds.). Mass Communication and Everyday Life: A Perspective on Theory and Effects (19-52). Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing.

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