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The Hypodermic Needle Model Advertising and World War I propaganda The 'folk belief' in the Hypodermic Needle Model was fuelled initially by the rapid growth of advertising from the late nineteenth century on, coupled with the practice of political propaganda and psychological warfare during World War I. Quite what was achieved by either advertising or political propaganda is hard to say, but the mere fact of their existence raised concern about the media's potential for persuasion. Certainly, some of the propaganda messages seem to have stuck, since many of us still believe today that the Germans bayoneted babies and replaced the clappers of church bells with the churches' own priests in 'plucky little Belgium', though there is no evidence for that. Some of us still cherish the belief that Britain, the 'land of the free', was fighting at the time for other countries' 'right to self-determination', though we didn't seem particularly keen to accord the right to the countries we controlled.
The Inter-War Years Later, as the 'Press Barons' strengthened their hold on British newspapers and made no secret of their belief that they could make or break governments and set the political agenda, popular belief in the irresistible power of the media steadily grew. It was fuelled also by widespread concern, especially among ?litist literary critics, but amongst the middle and upper classes generally, about the supposed threat to civilised values posed by the new mass popular culture of radio, cinema and the newspapers.
The radio broadcast of War of the Worlds seemed also to provide very strong justification for these worries.
Concern also grew about the supposed power of advertisers who were known to be using the techniques of behaviourist psychology. Watson, the founding father of behaviourism, having abandoned his academic career in the '20s, worked in advertising, where he made extravagant claims for the effectiveness of his techniques.
Political propaganda in European dictatorships 1917 had seen the success of the Russian Revolution, which was followed by the marshalling of all the arts in support of spreading the revolutionary message. Lenin considered film in particular to be a uniquely powerful propaganda medium and, despite the financial privations during the post-revolutionary period, considerable resources were invested in film production.
This period also saw the rise and eventual triumph of fascism in Europe. This was believed by many to be due to the powerful propaganda of the fascist parties, especially of Joseph Goebbels. Goebbels had great admiration for the propaganda of the Soviet Union, especially for Eisenstein's masterpiece Battleship Potemkin. Though himself a fanatical opponent of Bolshevism, Goebbels said admiringly of that film: 'Someone with no firm ideological convictions could be turned into a Bolshevik by this film.' The film was generally believed to be so powerful that members of the German army were forbidden to see it even long before the Nazis came to power and it was also banned in Britain for many years.
After the war, Speer, Hitler's armaments minister, said at his trial for war crimes:
[Hitler's] was the first dictatorship in the present period of modern technical development, a dictatorship which made complete use of all technical means for the domination of its own country ... Through technical devices like the radio and the loudspeaker, eighty million people were deprived of independent thought. It was thereby possible to subject them to the will of one man. quoted in Carter (1971)
While bearing in mind that Speer was concerned to save his own skin, we have to recognise that this view of the manipulative power of propaganda was fairly typical.
Post-War and the present day With the development of television after World War II and the very rapid increase in advertising, concern about the 'power' of the mass media continued to mount and we find that conern constantly reflected in the popular press. That concern underlies the frequent panics about media power. In the popular press, Michael Ryan was reported to have gone out and shot people at random in Hungerford because he had watched Rambo videos, two children were supposed to have abducted and murdered Jamie Bulger because they had watched Child's Play. After the 1992 General Election, The Sun announced 'It's the Sun what won it' - a view echoed by the then Conservative Party Treasurer, Lord McAlpine, and the defeated Leader of the Opposition, Neil Kinnock.
Horror comics This kind of concern has a long history. Even the Greek philosopher Plato was prepared to exclude dramatists from his ideal republic lest they corrupt the citizens. He wasn't prepared to have any truck with new music either: 'one should be cautious in adopting a new kind of poetry or music, for this endangers the whole system .... lawlessness creeps in there unawares,' he wrote in his Republic, in terms depressingly familiar to anyone who has heard what our guardians of public morality have had to say about Elvis, Hendrix, Sid Vicious, Madonna and the rest, not to mention the waltz and the tango!In the 1950s there was a sustained campaign in Britain against American horror comics, a campaign which saw an unlikely alliance of the morally outraged right and the British Communist Party, concerned about the American, anti-Communist messages in the comics (Barker 1984a)) an alliance reminiscent of the rather odd anti=pornography alliance today between some radical feminists and the religious right. The campaign resulted in the Children and Young Persons Act 1955, which is still in force today; the 1958 film The Wild One with Marlon Brando and Lee Marvin was banned because it might lead to juvenile delinquency; Alan Watkins' brilliant The War Game was banned because it might unduly alarm the public (though most likely because it told some unpalatable truths about nuclear warfare). The concern is always with the effect the questionable messages might have on those who are most susceptible - children, adolescents, the mentally unstable - and, of course, those who express the concerns are not themselves corrupted by those messages. The prosecuting counsel in the trail on obscenity charges of D H Lawrence's Lady Chatterly's Lover famously asked the jury if it was the sort of thing they would 'want their servants to read'. Would the servants be corrupted by the use of the word 'fuck' while their masters wouldn't? I suspect that the unspoken question was whether they would perhaps be corrupted by the tale of a servant 'fucking' a master (mistress in this case). It's not difficult to see how a concern with moral standards can be close to a concern with keeping people in their place.
Today those concerns would probably strike most of us as laughable when we read the comics and watch the movies that were banned. Will it seem silly in twenty years' time that in the '90s the sale of hard-core porn was limited to licensed sex shops, that various European governments tried to ban the Red Hot Dutch Channel and that software was available to screen out rude words on the Net?
Video nasties It might, but there was a re-run of the horror comics campaign during the 1980s with the video nasties campaign, which led to the Video Recordings Act. Just as the 1955 Act had been supported by an unlikely alliance of the right and the CPGB, so we find that the video nasties campaign was spearheaded by the Conservative MP, Winston Churchill, with the support of many feminists (Barker (1984b)).
Whether or not these concerns will strike us as silly at some time in the future, they are used by the 'moral entrepreneurs', such as Mrs Whitehouse of National VALA, Winston Churchill MP, or Nicholas Alton MP, or feminists like the American Andrea Dworkin, to determine what limitations there should be on what you and I see, read and listen to. And those people are in part responsible for the existence of the BSC, BCC, ITC, the various Royal Commissions on the Press, the BBFC, National VALA, the Video Recordings Act, the ASA, the Obscene Publications Act and all the other regulations which make Britain's media one of the most restricted in the 'free world'.