Ignoring the Decoders: Audience Agency

According to Stuart Hall (1980), there are three positions that people take when they decode a media message. The Dominant Hegemonic Position is when the audience interprets the message in such a way that bodes with exactly how the senders and producers of that message encode and intend it to mean. This ‘preferred meaning’ is a manifestation of the pervasiveness and strength of ‘the whole social order embedded in them as a set of meanings, practices and beliefs’ that legitimize the ubiquitous ideology of broadcasters and society (Hall 1980, 513). The Negotiated Position is when the audience decodes a media message by adapting to a situation and opposing certain codes i.e. this is when the audience accepts the dominant codes in the abstract and general but decides to oppose such codes within the context of the situational and specific. Finally, the Globally Contrary Position is when the audience decodes the message of knowledge producers using an ‘alternative framework of reference’, which leads to a totally oppositional decoding of the message (Hall 1980, 517).

Although Hall offers a model of communications that explores the relationship between sender, message, and receiver, he does not give enough agency to the receiver of the message. In the case of the audience of TV, Hall makes the assumption that those who watch television simply react to a message artifact through either fully accepting the intended message, partly accepting the intended message, or completely discarding the intended message. He totally ignores how the audience chooses to do any of these things and why. According to studies done by social scientists that study advertising, the process of negotiation and decoding of messages relies significantly on many features that Hall does not mention: the viewers’ culture, class, experience, worldview, and expectations, all of which comprise a mental schema (O’Shaughnessy and O’Shaughnessy 2004). Media’s constructs of meaning, are offered to audiences, who incorporate the media-offered constructs with their own ‘framed images of reality’ (McQuail 2005, 46). Consumers thus negotiate with the incoming messages through their schematic agency. In other words, what Hall does not mention is the agency of the audience through their mental schemata.

An example of the power of people’s schema can be found in their negotiations with advertising messages. Numerous survey studies suggest that teenagers’ and young adults’ alcohol consumption is significantly related to influences from peers and family, two groups that are vital in helping form an individual’s conceptual schema (Gunter et. al. 2010). In a California State University study, the frequency and quantity alcohol consumption among college students is assessed vis-à-vis their association with their parents’ drinking and finds that there is a significant correlation between male drinking scores and their fathers’ drinking behavior (Jung 1995 in Gunter et. al. 2010). Because an individual’s schema is based on social learning, when an individual grows up with a parent who has certain habits or worldviews, the individual’s own habits and worldviews will be influenced (O’Shaughnessy and O’Shaughnessy 2004); thus, schema is more powerful than ads in determining how an individual consumes alcohol. A central England study conducted on 17-21 year-olds finds that heavier alcohol consumption is related to the number of friends who drink and to the frequency of friend outings to pubs and bars (Gunter, Hansen, and Touri 2009 in Gunter et. al. 2010). Friends help shape an individual’s schema via their contribution to the individual’s cultural conditioning (O’Shaughnessy and O’Shaughnessy 2004)– in this case, friends appear to become the de facto influence behind the individual’s relationship with alcohol. Furthermore, a New Zealand study on under-age drinkers finds that the amount of alcohol consumed is closely related to whether friends approve of alcohol or not i.e. boys with girlfriends who disapprove of alcohol drink less and those with girlfriends who approve of alcohol drink more (Gunter et. al. 2010). This means that advertising cannot change tastes, create needs or wants, or even create demand (O’Shaughnessy and O’Shaughnessy 2004). That is up to one’s schema, which is formed by social conditioning aided, as shown in these studies, by friends and family. Studies such as these show how Hall’s different positions may occur and why, which consequently show how little agency Hall gives the audience.


Gunter, Barrie, Hansen, Anders, and Touri, Maria (2010) Alcohol Advertising
and Young People’s Drinking: Representation, Reception, and Regulation Basingstoke, UK and New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan

Hall, Stuart (1980) ‘Encoding/Decoding’ (pp. 128-138) in Hall, Stuart et al. (eds.) Culture, Media, Language

McQuail, Denis (2005) McQuail’s Mass Communication Theory: Fifth Edition London, UK, Thousand Oaks, CA and New Delhi, IN: SAGE Publications

O’Shaughnessy, John and O’Shaughnessy, Nicholas Jackson (2004) Persuasion in Advertising London, UK and New York, NY: Routledge