The Frightening Power Of Television
In 2009 a team of French scientists adapted a famous experiment to a TV show context. They wanted to see whether Milgram’s experiment results differed when the authority figure was linked to the TV. Milgram’s experiment was an experiment testing to what extent would someone obey hurting someone else.
The concept was quite simple, a question was asked to an actor, and if a wrong answer was given, the actor would be electrically shocked. The punishment was administered by the subject. The intensity could increase until the “death” of the actor. In the original experiment, 62% of the subjects accepted to go all the way. However, in the TV setting, the proportion climbed up to 80%.
Of course, being on the receiving end of the show isn’t exactly the same. There is no pressure of being filmed, no weird lighting, nor a TV presentator to give you orders. However, this experiment does reveal the television is considered a legitimate source of authority. It is undeniable it has an impact on all of us. Does it have the power to change our cultural values and beliefs?
We will be looking at news coverage, entertainment and ads.
News coverage can be impacted by different biases that lose the objectivity of the information or will not show the whole picture. For instance, appealing to emotions can lead to a loss of clarity, as we humans are empathetic beings rather than logical.
We are inclined to believe figures of authority and reuse their statements as facts: this is known as an argument of authority. Breaking news, even Nobel prize winners are humans, and can be wrong! For example, Montagnier, a Nobel prize winner, claimed that SARS-Cov2 was made in a lab, although his statement was disproved by the rest of the scientific community. This led to baseless speculation, and fed conspiracy theories.
Unfortunately, we share something that we think will interest others. And that is why fake news travel faster than the truth.
It is problematic when during debate no one can agree about a fact’s veracity, and the other side is said to be a victim of propaganda. This is especially relevant in political questions, such as the never ending democrat vs republican confrontations on the internet. A recent example of this is the distortion of Trump’s words in an ad, claiming that he said the virus itself was a hoax.
Most people who follow the platform or share the information will not challenge it. This is because of something called confirmation bias. This will push people to only listen to information that will confirm r beliefs. Unless expressly seeking to learn, most information we receive will actually reinforce our actual convictions. This can lead to some degree of polarization, where two sides are diametrically opposed, both having valid and true arguments, yet none considering the other facts.
Visual coverage of intense human experiences can reach us in a way newspapers or radio couldn’t. The footage has the power to sway our opinions one way or another. For example, the Vietnam war was one of the first wars to be filmed and broadcasted. Raw images of violence, pain and death reached the homes of Americans. A movement of protests rose against the war. However, just like speech, images can be filtered and manipulated to suit a political bias.
Television holds power because it is supposed to represent a lot of people, be relatable, entertaining and informative. Our culture influences television, and can also be impacted by it. It has the power to normalize controversial topics, such as sexuality or feminism. In 1997, Ellen, the main character on the show of the same name, came out. She became the first lead character to do so. Before that, the only times characters were represented on screen, they were rarely main characters, and their homosexuality was represented in a rather negative light.
Although the first response wasn’t positive, she paved the way for other shows. From 2005 to 2017, the percentage of LGBT regular characters went from 1.4% to 7%. Representation is essential because it educates people, given that they avoid falling into stereotypes. This change of attitude can allow progress in our societies, such as same sex marriage or same sex adoption. Not only that, but it can also have a positive impact of members of the LGBTQ community.
Role models and examples can allow to come to terms with one’s identity. Positive representation could potentially lower suicide rates, as well as affect how people think of themselves. Although it has significantly improved throughout the years, some topics remain taboo, and many shows still fall into oversexualizing or fetishizing their characters.
On the other hand, most actors and characters showed on screen are often attractive. They set an ideal body type and it can severely impact the image viewers have of themselves. Pageants, shows such as “America’s next top model” uphold the contestants as the epitome of beauty.
There is an tremendous downside to such unrealistic standards, as it often causes an unhealthy relationship with our bodies. In most cases, women believe thin is beautiful, while men should be lean and muscular. Many studies were conducted and confirmed that exposure really does have an impact on body image and overall satisfaction with oneself. Ideals are malleable, and evolve with the culture.
Entertainment media is quickly expanding with the appearance of streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu, Amazon prime, Disney +. Not all shows are direct on their position about a certain topic, and negative depictions can affect our perception of a certain topic.
Advertising and Marketing:
Marketing heavily relies on cognitive biases to push us to consumption. It is probably the most direct and explicit illustration of the power media holds on us. We have been so greatly exposed to some brands, that sometimes the brand names replaced the actual product’s name: kleenex, Q-tips, sharpie, band aids… This association will make our choice in supermarkets much quicker, as humans tend to go for what is familiar.
In the same way news can use cognitive biases to deform the truth, so can advertisement. First one is loss aversion, it is this feeling you get when you see a limited time offer, or when your free month trial ends. We tend to value a product when we own it.
Giving you the illusion of ownership (even potential) and then taking it away is very effective to get you consuming. Another interesting one is the IKEA effect. Basically, we are more attracted to a product that we can make unique by finishing the work up (eg Betty Crockers), or customize (the Share a Coke campaign was one of the most successful).
This gives us a sense of ownership, and a closer emotional attachment to the product. The ingroup bias calls upon our social nature, where the product could allow you to belong to the group, for example when a certain brand of shoes becomes trendy suddenly everyone starts wearing it to fit in… .
Why do cleaning ads always picture a 30 year old woman using the product? Why are women in Gillette ads already hairless when they shave? Why are men in perfume ads always the mysterious dark and sexy figure?
Ads usually don’t take up more than 30 seconds. Because of this their message has to be catchy, easy to remember and entertaining. Every single advertisement has a target audience, chances are if there kids running around interacting with animated characters and sparkly shoes, it is not addressed to a 40 year old man.
The image of a mother using cleaning products could maybe be reassuring to the young adult who just moved out, feeling like there is a guidance there. Yet it reinforces some negative stereotypes. Brands will exaggerate what is considered positive, so that the viewers associate the product with an overall feeling of perfection.
If the first thing that came to mind when thinking about a brand was a negative message it might severely affect sales. Nonetheless, this is not an excuse to give in to every stereotype and reinforce norms that are being fought against.
Television reaches thousands of people and has different types of content. News platforms easily manipulate the meaning of speeches and events according to their position. Most of the time instead of informing people, it just reinforces some convictions. Mass exposure can set norms and affect self image, impact our way of thinking about certain topics. This manipulation can be very conscious, especially when it comes to advertisement.
Televisions might be slowly disappearing, leaving social media and entertainment platforms to replace them. No significant difference will be made, except the speed at which information travels. So take everything with a pinch of salt, especially if you would like it to be true.