Millions of people tuned in last Sunday to watch the Super Bowl. Some for the actual game, some for the halftime show and some for the commercials. It’s repeatedly the most watched TV broadcast of the year. And also the most expensive. A 30-second ad went for fifty million dollars this year. But there is no shortage of companies who will pay to have their ad featured.
Why is that?
Social Learning Theory could help explain such a phenomenon. Advertisers know that people learn by modelling the behavior of others. We operate in a culture of consumption and companies are ready to spend millions in order to be featured on TV.
If we learn by modelling others, why not use TV? After all, television is the most used communication technology in the United States.
One of the greatest tools of socialization has been the television. Since its inception, people have used it for specific agendas. Political leaders have used it for propaganda in order to rally support for wars and policies. Companies use TV to get us to buy their products or use their services.
Television programming evokes responses from audiences in many ways. A great TV show can spur sentiments stronger than patriotism for the story and its characters. A show can create an entire empire by selling its merchandise. TV ads can stir controversy and spur nationwide boycotts.
Celebrity endorsements are another example of the power of social learning theory. If a respected celebrity with a large following endorses a product, subtly or covertly, sales usually increase. The more people like a celebrity, the more in-demand that person is.
We learn by watching others.
Even if we were to take the programming aspect of TV out, the physical object itself still influences our decisions. If someone you know buys the newest Samsung TV with the curved screen you might be inclined to purchase one yourself (once the price goes down, of course). TV gadgets like TiVo can initially encounter hesitation but once people see their friends using it and enjoying it, people gain the desire to own it too.
Back to programming, social learning theory works here too. A lot of new shows gain popularity through word-of-mouth. This is especially true of shows that don’t broadcast through traditional networks. I started watching Stranger Things because my friends kept telling me how amazing it was. Orange is the New Black, Mozart in the Jungle, and Narcos have become hits despite not airing on traditional networks.
There has also been a switching of conduits. Once a TV show has gathered a following on traditional broadcast but for some reason has been cancelled, on-demand services like Netflix pick them up. For example – Black Mirror. It originally aired on the British Channel 4 but was then taken over by Netflix. The show got an even larger following once American audiences began to watch it and tell their friends. This is also true of Breaking Bad which became a hit in the UK once it was uploaded to Netflix.
With services like Netflix and Amazon, television reaches even larger audiences giving producers more people to socialize. A dark aspect of social learning theory is that media can often reinforce negative stereotypes in regards to race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and so on.
People learn about others by watching TV. Millions of people get information via news channels and as much as audiences like to think that they are receiving unbiased news – they’re not. Television news stations continue to shape the way we view the world which can sometimes lead to a type of mean world syndrome where people believe that the world is more dangerous than it actually is.
Politicians use this to their advantage, utilizing fear as a tool to push their agendas. One of the downsides of social learning is that technology like television can be used to dehumanize certain groups. People watch and emulate others, sustaining the status quo.
Because TV is such a powerful tool of socialization, there is no decline in its horizon. Television is the most used commtech and is the second most owned. Whether it will oust radio in the latter regard remains to be seen. But one thing is certain – social learning is propagated through television which gives executives, producers, and companies no reason to not invest in its future.
People may think traditional television is threatened by Netflix or Hulu but I think these services enhance TV. Television can exist without Netflix, Netflix can’t exist without television. TV is still going strong and I doubt that will change in the years to come.