When our mass media evolved to reach of millions rather than thousands, social scientists created new theories. How would the media influence people’s behavior and attitudes? Sociologists started with the “hypodermic needle” model of influence — media “injected” opinions, beliefs, and attitudes into passive audiences. Recipients had no control. Once they were injected, their opinions and beliefs started to sway. The more they were injected, the more likely they were to move in the specified direction. Pundits feared that, given enough exposure to propaganda, God-fearing, freedom-loving Americans could be converted to communist atheists.
If the hypodermic model were accurate, money really would make a difference in presidential elections. Whichever side could run more ads and “inject” more viewers would win. Spend more money, win more elections.
Our understanding of mass media has evolved, however. We now think of it as a two-step model. First, the media influence (but don’t “inject”) opinion leaders in a given social circle. Second, the opinion leaders influence other people in the group. Perhaps fortunately, opinion leaders have only limited spheres of influence. For instance, my friends think I’m an opinion leader on computing technology. They ask my opinion. On the other hand, they never ask my opinion on gardening.
Political campaigners (and advertisers) want desperately to reach opinion leaders. It’s not easy, however, because a leader on one topic is not a leader on another. Even someone who is well informed may not be influential. I have friends who are dedicated leftists and others who are confirmed rightists. They read a lot, they seem well informed, and they’re very sure of their own opinions. But, they always offer the same pat solutions. I don’t trust either of them to influence my opinion. They’re not thinkers; they’re believers.
If politicians can’t count on their true believers to influence others voters’ opinions, what can they do? How do they target their messages? Fortunately or unfortunately, they can’t target very well. So they just carpet bomb. They’re using a hypodermic model in a two-step world. It doesn’t work. It never did. What a waste of money.