Almost a cliche, that media, advertisement, etc., govern our life – as if we were mindless. I think that media, especially when they depend to publicity (which is the rule), most of the time reflect our desires rather than create them. M. Socolow recalls Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds, and thinks that our behavior remains structured by a complex and dynamic series of interacting factors:

“That is the ultimate irony behind “The War of the Worlds.” The discovery that the media are not all-powerful, that they cannot dominate our political consciousness or even our consumer behavior as much as we suppose, was an important one. It may seem like a counterintuitive discovery (especially considering its provenance), but ask yourself this: If we really know how to control people through the media, then why isn’t every advertising campaign a success? Why do advertisements sometimes backfire? If persuasive technique can be scientifically devised, then why do political campaigns pursue different strategies? Why does the candidate with the most media access sometimes lose?

“The answer is that humans are not automatons. We might scare easily, we might, at different times and in different places, be susceptible to persuasion, but our behavior remains structured by a complex and dynamic series of interacting factors.

“Later media theory, and empirical research, would complicate and refine those earliest findings. But the basic problem of audience reception remains stubbornly resistant, and as long as the mass media exist, we’ll have empirical studies with dueling conclusions concerning effects. Many people, including scholars, will continue to believe something they intuitively suspect: that the media manipulate the great mass of the nation, transforming rational individuals into emotional mobs. But notice how those who believe this never include themselves in the mob. We are, as the Columbia University sociologist W. Phillips Davison once pointed out, very susceptible to the notion that others are more persuadable than ourselves.

“Would you have fallen for Welles’s broadcast? If not, why do you assume so many other people did?”

Cf. the full text at the Chronicle Review.

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