Competing Messages
Oklahoma University - January - March 2006
Literature Review

Images in media can be powerful, and for those who know how to use images in mass media have the ability to shape the perception of the masses (Zelizer, 2004). Media provide audiences a chance to view situations and events that they would otherwise never be able to experience. The media are able to do this through detailed and dramatic storytelling, photography, video, film and much more. However, those images relayed to audiences only portray a narrow view of a specific viewpoint (Zelizer, 2004). According to cultivation theory, perceptions are affected through cumulative exposure to media images (Gerbner & Gross, 1976).

In the age of “new media,” television still dominates the other forms of media. As of 2003, the television and the telephone were the only two media devices utilized by nearly every household in the United States (U.S. Census Bureau, 2006). The average person will spend more than 1,800 hours this year alone watching television programming – greater than the use of radio, Internet, video games, newspapers, books, and magazines combined (U.S. Census Bureau, 2006). Throughout an entire year, more than 20% of an average person’s time is spent watching television. Compare that to eight hours of sleep a night taking up another 33% of the entire year and that leaves slightly less than 50% of the year for work and any other activities. This information provides a profound look into the viewing habits of the average American.

The notion that media images and television viewing are related to people’s perceptions of social reality is virtually undisputed in the social sciences (Shrum, 2001), which is normally demonstrated by a positive correlation between the amount of television a person watches and the extent to which that person’s real-world perceptions are congruent with the world as it appears in the media.

Using the cultivation theory to direct the study of media effects on parents’ and young adults’ regarding the desirability of military service, it would be expected that those parents who have a positive attitude about the military cultivated through media will be more likely to support their child entering the military. Correspondingly, those young adults with a positive attitude about the military cultivated through media will also be more likely to consider military service.


According to Gerbner and Gross’ (1976) study on cultural indicators, common rituals and mythologies are methods of symbolic socialization and control. They demonstrate how society works by dramatizing its norms and values (Gerbner & Gross, 1976). They are the necessary parts of interaction that influence our outlook on society, our culture, and help to regulate social relationships. In essence, these stories helped to define past cultures through symbolic means, and today we use a variety of media forms such as television, movies, and books as opposed to basic story telling in the past.

Gerbner and his colleagues began to see a pattern emerge confirming their ideas that television was a much different medium from others at the time and required a new approach to study (Gerbner & Gross, 1976). Printed media require literacy for utilization, radio only tells information and requires an auditory comprehension to create a picture in a person’s mind, and prior to the television any sort of visual media required a person to actually travel some sort of distance to become consumed in that visual experience. Because its accessibility is relatively unlimited, television has the ability to be with us throughout our lives, from even before we are able to read until our older years where it can be used to keep us company (Gerbner & Gross, 1976). However, this does not dismiss the effects of other forms of mass media as related to cultivation.
Cultivation is not easily understood.

Two different types of effects are considered when using cultivation theory, first-order effects and second-order effects. First-order effects refer to estimations of frequency and probability of aspects of social reality that are empirically observable and verifiable in the real world, while second-order effects refer to opinions, beliefs, and attitudes toward an aspect of social reality (Van Mierlo & Van den Bulck, 2003; Shanahan & Morgan, 1999). In the case of violence, the first-order effect would be for a heavy viewer of television to overstate the amount of crime in the world compared to a light viewer, and the second-order effect would be the heavier viewer believing the world is a scarier place. Gerbner (1998) refers to this as “mean world syndrome.”

Quantitative studies on the cultivation effect have shown effects are generally found to be small, but longitudinal studies have shown there are consistent effects, and the fact there are effects, no matter how minute, is significant when dealing with our perceptions (Gerbner, 1998).
Although Gerbner (1998) states the cultivation theory should only be used in the case of television, using the theory with other media is not unprecedented. Lubbers and Scheepers (2000) used cultivation and found significant effects in newspaper readers, Van Mierlo and Van de Bulck (2003) found significant cultivation effects in the video game arena, and Hawkins and Pingree (1981) found significant evidence showing differential cultivation effects based upon television genres viewed.

Additionally, Pfau, Moy, and Kahlor (1999) used a modified version of the cultivation theory which combined the use of a variety of media and their effects on confidence of democratic institutions. It is upon Hawkins and Pingree’s (1981) implications of genre-specific cultivation effects, as well as Pfau and colleagues’ (1999) uses of different media, that we base our study upon and categorize various media into the area of news, entertainment, advertising, and conversation.

Because market research has shown our country’s youth to constantly change what messages they will be most susceptible to (Goodman & Dretzin, 2001) and the generational difference of dominant media use between adults and adolescents (Shah, McLeod, & Yoon, 2001), military recruiting must constantly look for new, inventive ways to deliver their message to their target audiences. The ability to provide more information for the military’s recruitment campaign on where teenagers receive the strongest influence would allow for a better concentration of assets and resources.

Each of the aforementioned may be considered by both young adults and their parents before a decision can be made to enlist in military service. However, the direct importance of each media form and the direct affect those forms have on either parents or young adults are not known. To study the cultivation effects of information regarding the military, the only way to know where they are receiving their information is by recognizing where and to what frequency young adults go to actively seek knowledge about the military. Knowledge of where young adults seek their information and being able to further predict the impact on attitudes of the target audience, would be vital to military recruiting efforts. However, with today’s technology, ways in which both teenagers and parents gather information has become increasingly more diverse due to the Internet, video games, and satellite news coverage.

Use of News and Perception of the Military

The effect that concerns this research is the perception of the military and in this section – how news effects that perception. News can be delivered through television, print, radio, and the Internet. In news, an example of cultivation effects showing statistical significance with heavy exposure to newspaper stories containing negative reports about ethnic crimes leads people to perceive ethnic minorities as being more of a threat than they would if they had read newspapers without negative ethnic reports (Lubbers & Scheepers, 2000). The perception or belief about the ethnic group stems from cumulative exposure to the same thoughts and ideas are expressed in those articles.

When measuring cultivation effects from the news, it is important to know that news or “real” media, especially programs containing violence, have a greater influence upon beliefs than fictional media (Geen, 1975; Atkin, 1983). An example of this was depicted by embedded media during Operation Iraqi Freedom.  Due to unprecedented access by embedded media in bringing the public direct imagery from Iraq, the public’s perceptions about the daily life of a soldier in war have become “real” to the audience. News images allow the public to see what is real but in a way that only partly reflects what is actually happening (Zelizer, 2004). Images from the war in Iraq may show how horrible life is only through pictures that extremely exaggerate the quality of life during war time and the time frame in which hardship must be endured. Those images are not formed in a vacuum (Zelizer, 2004).

The link between negative media and shortfalls in recruiting has been made by several Senators as they denounced other lawmakers and the news media for unfavorable depictions of the Iraq war (Allen, 2005). At a U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, Sen. James Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican, said families are discouraging young men and women from enlisting "because of all the negative media that's out there” (Allen, 2005, p. 1). According to the theory of cultivation, constantly portraying news of death in Iraq could change audiences’ perceptions of the actual amount of death occurring. This leads to the following prediction:

Those who rely more on the news for information about the military will have negative attitudes about a) the military and about b) serving in the military.

Use of Entertainment and Perception of the Military

For most viewers, new types of delivery systems (e.g., cable, satellite, and cassette) represent even further penetration and integration of established viewing patterns into everyday life (Gerbner, Gross, Morgan & Signorielli, 1986). Teenagers, as well as adults, now have more sources, such as the Internet, video games, and talk radio, to gather information on the world around them to supplement television use. Depictions or assumptions based on television programming and genres can be applied to genres of video games and where interests lie when searching the Internet.

Entertainment media is just another form for audiences to gather information. Although it may seem as though what is watched, read, or heard may be done so purely for entertainment, serious and real life situations are being depicted to audiences (Baum, 2003). Examples of these would be entertainment news, talk shows, and movies. Most television shows and movies regarding the military portray the military in a glamorous light by selecting attractive and popular stars to play the leads and stamping them with the label of the hero that saves the day.

In the past year, movies like Jarhead, Annapolis, and Stealth have been released depicting and glamorizing life in the military. On their opening weekends alone these movies grossed nearly $50 million. The popularity of military portrayal in film has also spread to television shows such as Over There, a show depicting current life of war in the Middle East.

Even through popular television soap operas like Days of our Lives include a plotline of a Marine deployed to fight in the war on terrorism (Soriano & Oldenburg, 2005).

In video games such as SOCOM: U.S. Navy SEALs, a player is allowed to become immersed in the military experience by speaking commands to your fellow “teammates” through a headset and  giving a person of the actual sense of what it is like to be on a military mission. Whether it is in video games, movies, or television, entertainment media glamorize service in the military in contrast to what a viewer would see in on the news. While entertainment may also deal with the reality of death in military service, we must take into account the way in which the two genres regard death. News rarely demonstrates the ability for valiant efforts of service members to be encapsulated into an entertaining story; instead, it focuses mainly on numbers of dead rather than heroic circumstances behind their sacrifice. Through the entertainment media, death of a service member is rarely in vain. Therefore this study posits that:

Those who rely more on entertainment for information about the military will have positive attitudes about a) the military and about b) serving in the military.

Video gaming systems with the ability to produce extremely lifelike images are a relatively recent addition to the media environment. Like movies, these games offer new and often times quite realistic worlds that have the ability to depict violence, sexuality, and other real life situations (Van Mierlo & Van de Bulck, 2003). As technology grows and these games become more and more prevalent in the daily lives of teenagers who have never been without the influences of these alternate forms of entertainment, it is likely cultivation will have an impact similar to that of television (Van Mierlo & Van de Bulck, 2003). Due to the fact even perceived realism has shown to play a role in linking exposure to social perceptions (Potter, 1986), it may be that these alternative media could soon prove to be just as effective upon perception as real television images.

One study found nearly a third of boys and girls reported playing video games at home for one to two hours per week (Beasley & Standley, 2002). Video games are also the most popular form of entertainment for boys and men between 12 and 25 years of age (Beasley & Standley, 2002) and are increasingly popular for parents of children. According to a recent survey of more than 500 households in 2005 regarding video game use, nearly 35% of parents play video games, 80% of which play video games with their children and 66% reportedly do so to bring their family closer together (Woodbury, 2006). However the number of parents playing games is relatively small when compared to the 81% of 15-18 year olds who have a video game player in the home, and another half has one in their own room (Roberts et al., 2005), accessible at any time of the day.

Van Mierlo and Van de Bulck (2003) found players of violent video games predicted higher estimates of the prevalence of violent crime as well as the number of policemen in the total workforce, an indication of the influence the cultivation effect has through video games.

In the past year, at least 10 video games on Microsoft’s Xbox video game console have been released portraying depictions of life in the military as a “tactical shooter.”  The most notable is the release of America’s Army: Rise of a Soldier, a game originally released via computer download and was further refined for release on the Xbox due to a response of 17 million online downloads (Soriano & Oldenburg, 2005). This game was actually developed by the Army to attempt to portray life as a soldier in Iraq as realistically as possible. On the video game website, users have the ability to give their own rating of the game and more than 70% have given it a rating of 8 or higher on a 10-point scale.

Today, With the Armed Forces clearly recognizing the importance of providing an entertaining experience of life in the military through video games, and with gaming proving to be a much larger role in the lives of adolescents than parents, it only widens the gap between the importance of entertainment in the lives of children in comparison to the significance of news for adults.

Entertainment shows like The Daily Show with John Stewart are talking about serious issues through humor, and the effects of these shows on public perception should not be taken lightly, especially for adolescents. For children 15-18 years old, only 10% of their television time is spent watching news, a mere seven minutes reading the newspaper, and the rest dedicated to entertainment media (Roberts, Foehr, & Rideout, 2005). Those slightly older, in the 18-24 year old category, report they devote 35 minutes per day to news; the attention given to news on a given day nearly doubles for those 35 and older (Pew Research Center, 2004). Because more audiences are tuning in to get the news from different avenues, such as entertainment (Kurtz, 1999), these findings could be very important in understanding how little youth rely on news while learning more from entertainment. Therefore this gives parents the ability to have cultivated more beliefs about negative repercussions of military service through hard news.

Compared to parents, young adults manifest positive attitudes about a) the military and about b) serving in the military.

Use of Advertising and Perception of the Military

Advertisements today do not always come in the form of neatly-packaged 30-second spots in between television programs; there are more subtle and direct forms of influence such as Internet chat rooms and blogs, Internet pop-ups, and product placement within television and radio programming.

To illustrate the number of people flocking to the Internet as a source for information,, a blog site, has grown in popularity from zero to nearly 50 million users in two years (Kornblum, 2006). It is possible that military blogs, or milblogs, could be an important source for disseminating information about the military, or advertising in this case.

However, Internet chat has already caught onto the point where the Army’s recruiting website now includes a link to enter a chat room where Army recruiters are available to answer any questions even until 2 a.m. Sunday through Thursday.

The Internet is not the only place recruiting efforts are currently leaning toward to attract its youth demographic. Product placement has also found a place for recruiting in the form of NASCAR sponsorship for the military services. The Marine Corps spends approximately $3.5 million on its Busch Series sponsorship, while the Army spends “less than $10 million” on its Nextel Cup sponsorship (Milburn, 2004).

While there are no studies directly measuring the persuasiveness of recruiting advertisements, there is significant evidence showing how advertising in general can be an extremely effective tool. The television documentary Merchants of Cool (Goodman & Dretzin, 2001) illustrates the power of advertising and the rise of Sprite from relative anonymity in the beverage industry to its relationship with hip-hop culture today. By advertising on MTV, linking the product to cultural icons and hip-hop concerts, and even paying “cool” kids to show up to these concerts to have a good time, Sprite was able to successfully launch itself into an association with cultural identity (Goodman & Dretzin, 2001). By marketing “cheap and easy content” to appeal to our nation’s youth through, what the program calls, “mooks” (the guy who even in his late 20s and early 30s continues to act like a teenager) and “midriffs” (the narcissistic teenager who strives to look and act much older than she really is) who adolescents can identify as “cool,” and then implying the products teens buy will allow them admission to these desirable groups helps make MTV $1 billion a year in advertising revenue (Goodman & Dretzin, 2001). Admittedly, this strategy is not about delivering youth with what they want to see on television, it is about figuring out through which kinds of programming to best pitch what marketers want to deliver to the young consumer (Goodman & Dretzin, 2001).        

If the Army and Marine Corps have truly found a way to market their product through some sort of “brand recognition,” through areas such as their NASCAR advertisements – it could have an even greater impact in terms of parental influence. Moore, Wilkie, and Lutz (2002) used multiple measures to demonstrate how brands transcend by generation through parental influence. Likewise, if parents are able to associate these advertisements with a positive affect, it is likely those perceptions will be passed on. This study predicts:

Those who rely more on advertisements for information about the military will have positive attitudes about joining the military.

Use of Discussions and Perception of the Military

Family communication patterns can also influence the transmission of political attitudes, such as views about the military, from parent to child. Meadowcroft (1986) posited family communication is an important influence on children and young adults’ perceptions of social reality because these communication patterns are a framework for interpreting the environment.

Family communication about politics is a complex process. Gemelli (1996) suggests young adults assert their own views, and parents are less likely to transmit their ideas directly to their children. Evolving perspectives can also affect family communication patterns (McDevitt & Chaffee, 2002a). McDevitt & Chaffee (2002b) argue parental preparation for political communication may actually be meager.

However, more parents are watching hard news and receiving information about the military through news media as opposed to entertainment media, a negative affect is likely to be projected.

Beyond typologies of family communication, researchers have noted a lack of political discussion between parents and children. “The impact of media, primarily television, is in some measure a function of parental interest and the likelihood that television news will be watched and discussed in the home” (Moore, Lare, & Wagner, 1985, p. 135). Drew and Reeves (1980) found that only 10% of the children in their samples discussed television with their parents, friends, or in classrooms. Making the correlation between politics and military, it can be expected when youth are having more conversations at home or school about the military, they will have a stronger attitude about the military.

However, there can be a multitude of factors contributing to either a young adult’s of parent’s perception of the military, such as prior military service or the current service of a parent or sibling. With military background in the immediate family it is more likely for parents and their children to have more informed conversations about military service. Those with less direct experience are more likely to have their attitudes affected by the media. Thus, this study posits:

Those who rely more on conversations for information about the military will have negative attitudes toward a) the military and about b) serving in the military.

Both parents and young adults, who have military experience within the immediate family, will have positive attitudes about a) the military and about b) serving in the military.

Parental Influence and Perception of the Military

While a past U.S. Army Research Institute study regarding parental influence has shown a correlation with the decision of adolescents to join the military, there is also significant evidence that youth perception of parental beliefs are often different from the parent’s self-reported belief (Legree et al., 2000). These differences show there may be either a lack of communication between child and parent or the outside influence on adolescents from parental figures in media (Legree et al., 2000).

Data used in the Army’s report were taken from surveys collected in 1987, and due to the differences in the change in the household media environment, and the fact this past study did not take place during a time of war when attitudes about death and war are much more salient, more information needs to be gathered to help determine parental influence in an adolescent’s decision to enlist.

As the Legree et al. (2000) study points out, the number of parents with direct knowledge about the military is dropping and suggested targeting parents in the services’ recruitment strategies. With the recent ads targeting parents, it is reasonably expected that such information would provide them with more positive attitudes about the military thus reinforcing the early studies’ findings that parental reports of positive attitudes are associated with adolescent enlistment behavior.

This study posits:

– Parents who manifest positive attitudes toward the military will be more likely to support their young adults joining the military.

– Young adults who manifest positive attitudes toward the military will be more likely to express an interest in joining the military.


 DoD Joint Course in Communications - Class 06-B