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Mass Media and Its Influence on American Pop Culture

Mass media is everywhere in American culture. No longer constrained to the television and the newspaper, its main channels in previous times, it has expanded outward into almost every facet of our everyday lives. Public television screens and portable media players mean that we are constantly being bombarded by images and sounds from this media channel. Exposure to music, information, and ways of telling stories from the mass media inform multiple areas of our everyday lives. This influence can be particularly seen in American pop culture, which is both informed and is informed by mass media. This influence can especially be seen in politics, fashion and body image, and the use and acceptance of illegal and legal drugs.

Pop Culture

Perhaps one of the most obvious influences on pop culture from the mass media is the political influence that mass media entertainers have on the general public. This influence can be seen from both the left and the right. Of course, this influence is not uninformed by existing attitudes. One study examined The Colbert Report, the satirical news show hosted by liberal comedian Stephen Colbert. This study found that both liberal and conservative viewers found Colbert’s presentation of the news funny. However, conservative viewers thought that Colbert was presenting a satirical view of liberal political ideologies, while liberal viewers believed that Colbert shared their political ideology. This shows how the political influence of the mass media is not absolute, and how it is not placed in a vacuum. Instead, individuals already have ideas and philosophies that have been shaped by their previous experiences and knowledge.

The mass media certainly influences this milieu, but it is not an absolute determiner of political thought. However, that is not to say that it has no influence! A second study found that liberal politicians appearing on The Colbert Report had an increase of around 40% in total dollar value of donations in the 30-40 days following their appearance (Fowler, 2008). This indicates that, even though Colbert represents himself as a satirist, his media influence is having a direct influence on the political sphere. This influence is not limited to liberal media commentators, however. Conservative Fox News commentators, such as Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck, have been seen to influence immigration debate in the United States, forestalling significant immigration reform through the use of political rhetoric that has been called inflammatory (Golash-Boza, 2009). Golash-Boza (2009) notes that these mass media pundits have a significant interest in inflaming sentiments regarding immigration, as it plays a role in development of their own careers. However, this self-interested motive does not prevent their words from having weight in the political debate.

Fashion has long been a sphere of influence of the mass media. One of the most visible influences of mass media on fashion today is the influence of the AMC hit series Mad Men, which follows a 1960s New York advertising agency. This show, which obsessively recreates the fashions of the 1960s for both men and women, has spawned a trend for the tailored, clean designs of the period (Kalning, 2010). This has created a strong demand for the types of fashions shown on the show. Kalning (2010) notes that dozens of designers have created designs either directly replicating clothing and items featured on the show or inspired by the same designs. These designs, such as cowl-necked sweaters, sweater sets, pencil skirts, cat’s eye sunglasses, costume jewelry, and slim-cut men’s suits and hats, have grown to dominate the fashion scene. The show’s costume designer, Janie Bryant, has even begun to influence fashion directly, introducing a line of nail polish colors inspired by the show and publishing a book of fashion advice based on the look of the show (Bruce, 2010). The influence on fashion clearly plays into the influence on body ideals as well. However, the influence on fashion is both more inclusive and less demanding than the influence on body image.

The influence of the mass media on body image and beauty ideals has long been a matter of concern. Mass media’s focus on an extremely thin body ideal for women has become increasingly strong over recent decades. This has been enforced not only by selection of actors and other mass media people that have bodies conforming to this image, but increasingly by the use of technology such as Photoshop to change media images before they are presented. This creates an ideal of beauty that is difficult or impossible for most women to achieve. Because the mass media is one of the sources of body image ideal information for children, adolescents, and adults, this has become an increasing concern because of the potential for influence on development of negative body self-image. Empirical research has borne out the assumption that the improbable body ideal presented to women through the mass media has a negative effect on the body images of women and girls, according to Grabe, Ward and Hyde’s (2008) meta-analysis. This meta-analysis showed a small to moderate effect on the body image of women from mass media images in a comparison of 77 studies (Grabe, Ward, & Hyde, 2008). This clearly shows that, among the influences the mass media has on American pop culture, the imposition of a specific body ideal that is impossible to achieve is certainly one of the strongest and possibly one of the most damaging.

A somewhat trickier influence of the mass media on American pop culture is on our attitudes toward the use of legal and illegal drugs. One of the clearest examples of this is on smoking, which depending on the age of the individual can be either legal or illegal. Mass media’s influence on smoking is primarily focused through two channels, including anti-smoking messages and the images of people smoking on television. These two types of messages can either promote smoking (through portrayal of characters smoking) or reduce its importance. Furthermore it takes place regardless of whether the depictions of people smoking are adolescents or adults. The main effect in this case has been shown to be strong, but indirect – that is, adolescent perceptions of smoking are strongly influenced by how they believe their peers will react to smoking messages on television, rather than how they themselves react directly. This effect has been shown to be stronger for pro-smoking messages rather than anti-smoking messages, however (Gunther et al, 2006). This implies that mass media’s influence is much stronger in convincing adolescents that they should smoke rather than that they should not smoke, and that the balance of pro-smoking and anti-smoking messages is essential if there is a public health goal of reducing adolescent smoking.

This influence has not only been seen in the adolescent realm. One study has found that there is also substantial influence on adult smokers from mass media campaigns against smoking (Wakefield, et al., 2008). This study found that mass media campaigns targeted to reduction of smoking in the adult population, like public advertisements for smoking cessation programs and informational advertisements about the effects of smoking, were effective in reducing the prevalence of smoking in the adult population (Wakefield, et al., 2008). Furthermore, the study also showed that in adults that continued to smoke, these campaigns resulted in a reduction of the amount that they smoked. However, this study did show that significantly more mass media exposure for anti-smoking campaigns would be needed in order to reduce this even further, demonstrating the power of smoking-positive messages in the mass media as well as the ingrained nature of smoking in American life. Thus, the messages of smoking in the mass media are important not just for adolescents, but for adults as well.

The mass media influence reaches into almost every area of American pop culture and life. Its influence on politics can change the way laws are made and the ways in which voters distribute both their cash and their votes. It can make or break fashion trends and styles, and it imposes a body image that it is simply not possible for the majority of American women to live up to. It both reflects and underscores our attitudes toward the use of alcohol, drugs, and tobacco. Whether these influences are positive or negative can sometimes be debated, but what cannot be debated is that these influences are present in all of our everyday lives. There are of course multiple other influences that could not be mentioned here, as well. Given this type of influence, it is important to consider what has influenced one’s own ideas and norms related to any idea or pop culture phenomenon. Chances are good that these have been informed, if not entirely shaped by, the influence of the mass media.


Bruce, L. 'Mad Men' designer launches nail polish line. Retrieved from Hollywood Reporter.

Fowler, J. H. (2008). The Colbert bump in campaign donations: More truthful than truthy. PS: Political Science and Politics , 41 (3), 533-39.

Golash-Boza, T. A confluence of interests in immigration enforcement: How politicians, the media and corporations profit from immigration policies destined to fail. Sociology Compass , 3 (2), 283-94.

Grabe, S., Ward, L. M., & Hyde, J. S. (2008). The role of the media in body image concerns among women: A meta-analysis of experimental and correlational studies. Psychological Bulletin , 134 (3), 460-76.

Gunther, A. C., Bolt, D., Borzekowski, D. L., Liebhart, J. L., & Dillard, J. P. Presumed influence on peer norms: How mass media indirectly affect adolescent smoking. Journal of Communication , 56 (1), 52-68.

Kalning, K. 'Mad Men' fashion: How to get the show's iconic 1960s style.

LaMarre, H. L., Landreville, K. D., & Beam, M. A. The irony of satire: Political ideology and the motivation to see what you want to see in the Colbert Report. The International Journal of Press/Politics , 14 (2), 212-31.

Wakefield, M. A., Durkin, S., Spittal, M. J., Siahpush, M., Scollo, M., Simm, J. A., et al. (2008). Impact of tobacco control policies and mass media campaigns on monthly adult smoking preference. American Journal of Public Health , 98 (8), 1443-50.