Rethinking Magic Bullet Theory: When news hits you like an injection

While may seem outdated, the Magic Bullet Theory still exists in this world of information and is sometimes used concurrently with other communication theories.

Rethinking Magic Bullet Theory: When news hits you like an injection

With 30 seconds for advertising on “Tao Quan” - one of Vietnam’s most popular TV programs, brands and businesses have to pay around 645 million VND and the shortest advertisement in 10 seconds is worth 322 million VND. With the popularity of forms of advertising, like social media, influencers,... which have great influence on the audience, why do businesses and brands invest a huge amount of money into such a traditional mass media?

“Tao quan” poster. Source: VTVGo 

To better understand the role of mass media in conveying messages to the masses, let’s go back to the period of two world wars and one of the earliest communication theories - “Magic Bullet Theory”.

What is the Magic Bullet Theory and why does it matter?

The Magic Bullet Theory (also known as Hypodermic Needle Theory) stated that mass media had a direct, immediate and powerful effect on their audiences. Mass media refers to non-personal channels spreading messages for the public. It usually exists in forms of written or digital press, radio, or television. Just imagine there is a gun with several bullets containing intended messages called “A” and you are the target. The bullets are created with a bit of a trick, then it hits you. Now, I have given you a dose of “A” and information in A flows like bloodstream into you and you can not escape because it has been “into” you. Then, you completely take hold of “A” as facts and change your behaviour and psyche towards “A”. This is how you can understand the way the Magic Bullet Theory worked when it was first proposed by Harold Lasswell in 1930, during World War II. In communication history, the era of mass media, including radio, movies, posters and advertisements,... developed between the 1930s and 1950s and was supposed to be a powerful influence on human’s behaviour. There were three important factors contributing to this “powerful power”, which are the rapid development and popularisation of radio and television, the emergence of advertisements and propaganda, and Hitler’s monopolisation of the mass media during World War II.

Nowadays, we are living in a multicultural and multi-way information world with the inventions of modern communication models and new media. Spending many hours on social media platforms, we get access to diverse information sources which help us to compare the information we receive, thereby exposing many aspects of an issue. In addition, it just takes us a couple of clicks to check the authenticity of the information. However, without the popularity of the Internet and the appearance of social media, life was completely different about 80 years ago. At that time, the public could only approach a single source of information via mass media with limited forms like posters, advertisements, films, books, leaflets which were mainly controlled by the government.

A typical example is the radio program called “The War of the Worlds”. Mercury Theatre and Orson Welles - the radio character, created a news bulletin about an alien invasion in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey, America. Thousands believed that an interplanetary conflict had begun when they heard that monsters were crawling out of the mass of the metal and destroying hundreds of people with their death-ray guns. Even without detailed information, thousands of listeners left their homes in New Jersey to call for help from police offices, switchboard operators, and electric companies. A1,100 calls were made to the switchboard at The News, hundreds of physicians and nurses were prepared to come into destroyed areas. At Princeton University, two of the geology faculty members came to Grover’s Mills where the meteor was supposed to fall. Meanwhile, in the Sacred Heart Church, a sudden flux of people rushed in, knelt down and started praying.  A wave of mass hysteria interrupted religious services, created traffic jams and blocked communication systems. All of this happened within a few hours of broadcasting the program. This example proves that the radio, a form of mass media, injects ideas straight into citizens’ minds and convinces them to act towards those.

Orson Welles (arms raised) rehearses his radio show “The War of the Worlds”. Source:

How was this theory applied to spread propaganda during World War II?

World War II was a global conflict involving most of the world's countries in two opposing alliances: the Axis power (Germany, Italy, and Japan) and the Allies (France, Great Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union). The war followed many aspects from World War I and the two sides competed in various fields, such as politics, military, science and technology, and economy. Especially, to maintain and strengthen the citizens' support, both sides spread propaganda to shape public opinions.

In 1942, the U.S President created the Office of War Information (OWI) with the responsibility for dissemination of war information and propaganda. At that time, the OWI mainly used forms of mass media to achieve their goals, namely posters, press, cartoons and movies, advertisements, leaflets. During the war, almost 200,000 different designs were printed. These posters used a variety of themes to unify support for the war, including conservation, production, recruitment, home-front efforts. They were placed in public places like post offices, railroad stations, schools, restaurants and stores. Because many posters were printed to recruit men into the war-front, women needed to replace their husbands' positions in factories and workplaces. The U.S government did launch major campaigns to encourage women to join the workforce. The symbolic poster was "Rosie the Riveter". The U.S government really took advantage of mass media in forms of posters and advertisement to repeatedly convince the women that their participation in the workforce would assist their husbands in the battlefield. Consequently, the number of women working jumped 15% from 1941 to 1943, about 350,000 women served in the armed forces, and 5 million women entered the workforce between 1940 and 1945.

U.S propaganda posters during World War II to recruit men into army forces and call for women support in work places. Sources: UNT Digital Library, 

How has the situation changed since World War II in terms of international communications?

Following the popularity of mass media, the Internet was invented in 1969, search engines appeared in 1990, Wiki was created in 1995 until the foundation of the Information Age in the 21st century. This period can be described as the information technology era when everything is transformed into digital forms and knowledge is much more powerful than ever before. When someone wants information, they could immediately search on the Internet via some search engines or ask the chatGPT to get the results right after several seconds. Mass media is no longer the dominant way to share and receive information due to the emergence of new media and social media. Therefore, we need to rethink the Magic Bullet Theory like the way drugs flow in the human body.

Just imagine a patient is about to be injected. There are factors affecting the absorption throughout the body such as age, time of injection, background disease,... This is the same with receivers in communications, when the needles are mass media and drugs inside are messages directly injected to your brain. Depending on the organs they belong to, their sets of norms, values, and beliefs, they can absorb the information in different ways. Nowadays, Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) have considerably changed the face of communication. The Internet-driven period and the emergence of the new media provide the audience with various information channels to confirm and decide whether to believe the news.

Nowadays, though the Magic Bullet Theory seems to be outdated and not used as widely as before, it still exists and is combined with other communication methods to convey messages to the public. A recent example is Vietnam’s propaganda during COVID-19 pandemic. Throughout the pandemic, the government coordinated with media agencies from central to local levels to spread 5K messages and the pandemic update to all citizens. They used various types of mass media like pictures, posters, printed and digital newspapers, radio, TV news in public places like parks, schools, hospitals, restaurants, markets,... to transmit the most accurate and latest information to people, which makes COVID-19 responses easy and timely. And the results, though not entirely led from mass media, Vietnam was honored as one of the countries with best COVID-19 responses while other countries were in crisis with this virus.

Vietnam’s posters against COVID-19 pandemic. Sources: VnExpress, 

From my perspective, the Magic Bullet Theory is no longer as popular as it was, but it ís still considered among other communications theories whenever communicators carry out communication activities targeted to the public audience. In the case mentioned at the beginning of this article, I think the brands’ decisions partially relate to the Magic Bullet Theory based on two main factors: high reach level and the prestige of the program. Those advertisements on TV programs do not aim to influence the audiences to buy the mentioned products immediately, their purposes are increasing the credibility and building trust with potential customers.


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  2. Peter Tonguette. (2018). The Fake News of Orson Welles.
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  4. O'er the ramparts we watch : United States Army Air Forces.
  5. Carrie L, Cokely. (Last updated: April 21, 2023). Rosie the Riveter.
  6. Samantha Coomber. (December 28, 2020). The art of getting the Covid-19 message across.
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Writer: Giang Thanh