Effects Theory: Passive Audience Theory and ‘Natural Born Killers’


Effects theory was developed in the 1920’s, and looks at how media texts influence those who consume them, particularly (in recent decades) how negative messages, i.e. sexual and violent content, can affect the most vulnerable of audience groups. You will have come across the ‘Hypodermic Needle’ model (or ‘Silver Bullet’ approach), where the audience is seen as passive – “empty vessels” who play no role in interacting with the media texts concerned. The theory states that these texts function in a one-directional communication process.

In recent decades theorists have noted many problems with Effects theory (a discussion of “Ten Things Wrong with the Effects Model” is available on the theory.org.uk website: http://www.theory.org.uk/effects.htm). Many feel it is out of date and that it vastly underestimates the audiences, and this has led to the development of more complex theories about active audience participation in the reading of media texts.

The following clips are a scene and a trailer from Oliver Stone’s film ‘Natural Born Killers’, a controversial and widely criticised satire of serial killers and their role/reception in the media, which contains explicit violence throughout (including in the first clip!). The film has been blamed for – or at least closely linked to – many “copycat” crimes in the USA, but is the graphic, violent content the only element of the film to blame? Consider what else could be a factor when watching the second clip (particularly the last part of the trailer).


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