John Thompson had stated that “messages transmitted by the mass media are received by specific individuals situated in definite social-historical contexts”. He was quite right in asserting that though the media messages are broadcast to a large audience, the messages are ultimately consumed at the level of the individual. The way the message would be treated would depend on their social-historical contexts. For instance, the general level of education of the media audience is a factor that determines their historical context. People in an agrarian society in a third world country will be poorly educated and their ability to grasp media messages would be limited to that extent. On the other hand, an urban audience will have a wider perspective about different aspects of life, which means they are better equipped in understanding and relating to the media content (Leigh 1991, p. 71).
The individual members of the audience receive the media messages in socially atomized setups. This is true of any type of media – television, radio, newspapers, etc. Consuming the media message is essentially a solitary activity. Even when all members of the family are watching television together, each perceives, interprets and integrates the message in his/her own unique way, dictated by their intellectual and cultural standpoint (Leigh 1991, p. 73).
The essence of modern advertising is the shift from qualitative value to symbolic, implied and illusionary value of commodities. The purpose of most of these beamed messages is to manipulate and deceive the recipient. This is achieved by making the individual attach symbolic values to commodities. Loss of a strong individual identity is the negative consequence of the mass propaganda campaigns for commodities. It would not be inaccurate to say that mass media is a tool used by corporate advertisers to control and manipulate the minds of the consumer (McQuail 1993, p. 37).
In contemporary society, the relationship between the external world and the individual is dictated by the flow of mass communications. Individuals essentially are “other-directed”, meaning, their education, leisure and professional ambitions are directed by the society at large, mainly through the media (McQuail 1993, p. 38). Identities, as a means of understanding ourselves, also involve concepts of masculinity and femininity and notions of how individuals should present and conduct themselves. In such a scenario, the individual’s peer group becomes more important than the family, the career and material possessions more important than true inner experiences. The identities that people assume are necessarily shallow and temporary, constantly changing and molding itself to the needs of the market. The result is a loss of deep-rooted ethic (McQuail 1993, p. 36).
Human beings have become atomized and isolated from each other as a result of urbanization and other modern social structures. Social interactions have significantly diminished as a consequence. People are deprived basic needs for intimacy. To fill this void, individuals seek out attributes of media personalities that they can relate and identify with. This explains why political debates have become an entertainment contest of personalities as opposed to an analysis of the issues (Mcleod, Scheufele & Moy 1999, p. 325).
While the mass media plays an important role in the democratic process, it does not always lead to the best outcomes. Let us take the case of election campaigns. The individual members of the media audience belong to various political affiliations, religious backgrounds, ethnic groups, social classes, etc (Brown 1997, p. 482). These pre-existing leanings and memberships have a major influence on how the message is perceived, interpreted and evaluated. So, the members of the audience are not strictly passive, but actively accommodating, assimilating and blocking the messages as per their world view (Schmitt-Beck 2003, p. 243). But it is demonstrated convincingly that messages that strengthen the existing identity is more easily received and processed than the ones that try to change it, not least because people seek out information that reinforces their existing beliefs. In this respect, changing party and ideological affiliations are difficult endeavors (Gardels 1997, p. 27).