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Marketing News: The Mass Media “Drug”

I am ambivalent about the concept that one consequence of mass media is “narcotizing dysfunction.” While I do agree that certain forms of mass media can create narcotizing effects – how many times have we all sat open-mouthed, enraptured at a spellbinding movie – I disagree with the Lazarsfeld/Merton postulation, put forth in ‘Mass Communication, Popular Taste and Organized Social Action’, that submersion in media can make viewers passive and apathetic – in short, dysfunctional. But there are cases to be made in both camps.

On the dysfunctional front, Raymond Williams comments, “Isn’t the real threat of ‘mass culture’…that it reduces us to an endlessly mixed, undiscriminating, fundamentally bored reaction?” and “at times, even, we take it as a kind of drug.” His comments do hold true. Secondly, look at the concept of media-induced rituals. While they may contribute order and structure to the lives of some individuals, those automated movements could also be viewed as if they are drug-induced habits generated because of the media. For instance, my wife delves so deeply into her Saturday morning review of hot media Entertainment Weekly that sometimes it can be hard to get her attention. Lastly, as I worked my way late at night through the essays in ‘Media Studies, A Reader’ (more hot media), I found myself dozing off as if drugged. Media narcotics! (Or merely sleep deprivation?)

I, however, tend to be more in line with the theory that mass media can move a society into aggressive, decisive action. Not a dysfunctional quality at all! Put forth in Vivian’s text, we have “the view of many mass media historians that the media have helped to bind society rather than divide it,” and while defining Agenda-Setting and Status Conferral by using the then-media-saturated death of Matthew Shepard, Vivian states, “it was tragic gay-bashing, and coverage of the event moved gay rights higher on the national agenda.” Even Lazarsfeld and Merton state, “it is evident that the mass media have lifted the level of information among large populations.”

Without a doubt, information is the opiate of the masses. One simply has to look at the recent Presidential campaigns for proof. The mass media has been offering frenzied coverage for months, and as a result, the masses have been inundated with information and opinions about the upcoming event through TV, radio, newspapers, books, magazines and online media channels. And what is the result? A population that not only “congratulates itself on the lofty state of interest and information” (Lazarsfeld/Merton) but a group that also added the “vicarious performance” of enacting social and political change by electing the next United States President. With this in mind, while some believe that mass media can make us fall short in that performance action, our current history shows that a narcotized public, saturated with information (and interest) is not apathetic and passive, but can be an engine of change.

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