screenshot from the road safety campaign

Hypodermic Needle Theory – Road Safety Campaign


The first drink-driving advertisement aired on UK television in 1964 and they have been a regular feature on our screens since. They are often gruesome and distressing because the creators want to emphasise the terrible consequences of this unacceptable behaviour and for the audience to take personal responsibility for our actions.

This particularly disturbing advert is from 1992 and is called “Eyes”.

The hypodermic needle theory suggests audiences are passive consumers of the media and that producers can have a direct and immediate influence on our values and behaviour. This model of communication was first described by Harold Lasswell who compared propaganda posters to a serum being injected into the audience. The theory was also used to explain the mass panic caused by the “War of the Worlds” broadcast in 1938.

The producers behind the “Eyes” campaign hoped their shock tactics would result in a reduction of alcohol-related crashes and the number of people driving under the influence of alcohol. Although there is some evidence pointing to the success of these safety campaigns, the statistics are not conclusive.

To what extent do you think fear-based advertising can inject a message into the audience which we simply accept?


Analyse the following print advertisement in terms of audience and the hypodermic needle theory.

drink driving campaign

Points to Consider

Semiotic analysis of media texts is important because we need to establish how the message is being encoded. When you are exploring and advertisement’s impact on the audience, you should refer to the key signifiers and how they combine to deliver the producer’s preferred reading – don’t drink and drive. The dominant signifier of this image is surely the pale face of the young girl and her blank expression. Does her ghostly appearance have an immediate impact on the audience?

Obviously, the plastic tubes, neck brace and the use of the defibrillator connote the seriousness of the medical emergency. How does this add to the impact of the image?

Blood is used sparingly in the image because too much would be gratuitous. However, there is some soaking on the bandage behind her head and a line running from her nose. What role does this signifier play in the narrative?

It is really important that you consider the direct mode of the address in headline: “look her in the eye”. How does it position the audience and anchor our interpretation of the text? Does its brutal engagement with the reader suggest the producers were trying to inject their message? How does the tagline support the preferred reading?

Roland Barthes suggested a photograph could evoke strong emotions from the viewer. He called the signifier which produced this response the punctum. The way the girl stares lifelessly at the camera certainly pierces the viewer. Does this technique support the hypodermic needle theory?

Television Campaign

“Eyes” was a cross-media campaign which also featured on television. Does this distressing advertisement have an immediate and powerful impact on the viewer?

Further Study

Most critics dismiss the hypodermic needle theory because audiences are now considered to be active consumers of the media. You should certainly think about Hall’s decoding positions from his reception theory and explore why audiences continue to drive recklessly despite the huge risks.

It might also be worth considering the message in terms of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs because the advertisement is appealing to our physiological needs.

Further Reading

Thanks for reading!