You are (Not) Immune to Propaganda: Analyzing the Magic Bullet/Hypodermic Needle Theory

Nobody likes to admit that they are gullible to fall for a marketing advertisement or a fake news article that someone shared on social media.

However, the Garfield image with the text “you are not immune to propaganda” has been a common sight in meme culture since its original Tumblr post surfaced in 2018, according to Know Your Meme.

Despite the humorous framing of the lasagna-loving cat with an ominous message, the hypodermic theory consists of media analysis where the message elicits a strong response from an audience. Also known as the “magic bullet” theory, the media message serves as the “bullet,” should it hit the recipient and have a substantial effect, according to the Rosenberry and Vicker textbook “Applied Mass Communication Theory.”

The most infamous example cited throughout mass communications academia is the 1938 CBS radio broadcast of H.G. Wells’s science fiction “War of the Worlds” narrated by Orson Welles. In an attempt to sound as realistic as possible, the radio broadcast began with regular music playing until it was interrupted by breaking news bulletins where voice actors described the alien invasion, following the script based on the novel. Millions of radio listeners within the New York and New Jersey area believed the attack happened when the broadcast ended, resulting in panic and even deaths.

Even though the hypodermic theory was called into question after Paul Lazarsfeld published his 1940 “People’s Choice” case study about Franklin D. Roosevelt’s election campaign, several events demonstrate elements of the hypodermic/magic bullet theory due to the rapid and unregulated nature of the internet and social media.

One example is the rise and crash of the NFT market within cryptocurrency technology. By selling NFTs as an exclusive item to the masses, the majority of average consumers bought into the volatile market and sometimes ended up losing real-world money. Meanwhile, when celebrities were promoting the now-established Bored Ape Club avatars on late-night shows, making social media posts encouraging their fans to invest in NFTs and even landing a spot on SuperBowl commercials featuring actor Matt Damon, their financial assets were not affected and celebrities immediately stopped promoting NFTs as soon as it became a dangerous territory.

On a smaller scale, the “TikTok made me buy it” phenomenon highlights how the hypodermic theory works on a paradox since it’s based on how the TikTok algorithm works on your individual interests yet the popular items mentioned end up selling out due to the collective effect of everyone else viewing the same videos. If you are active on the makeup and beauty side of TikTok, then you were familiar with how the KVD Beauty Good Apple Skin-Perfecting Foundation Balm made headlines on its sold-out status in the summer of 2021. On the cooking side of TikTok, a popular baked feta cheese pasta left grocery stores with a limited stock of feta cheese back in February 2021 with everyone eager to get the ingredients for the recipe.