The Lasswell communication model is a linear framework for explaining the communication process through segmentation. Lasswell proposed media propaganda performs three social functions: surveillance, correlation, transmission. Lasswell believed the media could impact what viewers believed about the information presented.
Understanding the Lasswell communication model
The Lasswell communication model is named after American political scientist and communication theorist Harold Lasswell.
Lasswell, a former Yale University professor, developed the model in 1948 to analyze mass communication and the effect of media propaganda in various countries and businesses.
To that end, he proposed media propaganda performs three social functions:
Which gives those consuming media insight into what is transpiring around them.
This refers to the media’s interpretation and explanation of specific news events.
Where the media conveys social ideas and cultural heritage to subsequent generations of media consumers.
In general terms, Lasswell believed the media could impact what viewers believed about the information presented. This notion can be extended to any communicator, whether it be a person, group, or business.
Regardless of the context, however, the communicating entity has some intention to influence the receiver through messaging. This means Lasswell’s model treats communication as a tool for persuasion.
The five components of the Lasswell communication model
Five components can be used to predict the effect a message has on a person or group of people, with each having its own analysis method.
Let’s take a look at the five components below:
1 – Who
The communicator, sender, or source of the message. This may be a person or an organized institution like a newspaper, radio station, website, or television station.
Here, Lasswell argued that a control analysis should be used to critique the sender on how they exercise control and power over the message being disseminated. Do they have authority on the topic? Do they have a political agenda or some other bias? How have they reported on similar events in the past?
2 – Says what
Put simply, the message being communicated. This may include a news story, fairy-tale, biblical story, political story, or story with an important take-home message.
In this case, Lasswell favored a content analysis where a transcription of the message is scrutinized. This enables the receiver to identify recurring themes, highlight important passages, and identify how the message distorts the truth.
- How does the message depict someone as a hero while depicting someone else as a villain? How does it frame the battle between good and evil?
- How are minority groups portrayed? This is an increasingly important factor.
- What are the concepts being reinforced as the ideal or truth?
3 – In which channel
This describes the medium or media used to disseminate the message, such as social media, photography, books, blogs, television, radio, letters, and magazines.
When Lasswell developed his theory in 1948, he had access to a very small number of media. But the premise remains the same today, with a media analysis determining the medium most suitable for sending a message to a particular audience.
4 – To Whom
This is the receiver of the message, which may be an individual or an audience. In the context of mass communication, the audience may constitute:
- The citizens of a nation.
- The readership of a blog, magazine, or newspaper.
- Children – if messages are being sent on television before and after school and on weekends.
- Adults – for products such as alcohol and gambling.
- Women – for the promotion of women’s fashion and related social issues.
In the fourth component, audience analysis is key. This categorizes the preferences of audiences according to:
- Demography – age, income level, ethnicity, location, and marital status.
- Status – political or social affiliations, job titles, and professions.
- Behaviors – needs, wants, values, hobbies, personalities.
5 – With what effect
What effect will the message have on the intended target audience?
In marketing, the effect the business wants to institute is consumers spending money. However, other effects may also include influencing voter preferences, increased brand awareness, or public awareness of a health issue.
To measure the impact of a message, an effects analysis is undertaken. For modern businesses, results can be attained almost instantaneously.
An eCommerce business will know how long a consumer spends on their site before purchasing.
Similarly, it will also be able to determine the success of a recent advertising campaign and be able to make important strategic adjustments.
Advantages of the Lasswell model of communication
Lasswell’s model is useful to describe almost any type of communication, irrespective of the context, message content, sender and receiver, and medium in which the communication occurs.
While it does not have the nuance of some other models, many enjoy Lasswell’s interpretation because it is simple, easy to understand, and contains only five components.
Disadvantages of the Lasswell model of communication
The main criticism of Lasswell’s model is that it does not account for feedback.
While the effect a message has on the receiver could be construed as feedback, Lasswell’s model was intended to study mass media communication.
As a result, it does not consider that the receiver may want to transmit a message back to the sender.
Furthermore, Lasswell’s model does not consider the impact of noise. This can be defined as any internal or external factor that disrupts the communication process.
In general, noise may be physiological (hunger, fatigue), physical (interference, static, a passing train), psychological (preoccupation, inattentiveness), and semantic – where words or concepts are not mutually understood because of age, culture, experience, or some other factor.
Common misconceptions of Lasswell’s model
Lasswell’s model has existed for over 70 years. During that time, several misconceptions have arisen and cast doubt over Lasswell’s contribution to the field of mass communication.
Let’s take a brief look at these misconceptions below.
The model is static with fixed categories
Many assume Lasswell’s model is a product of its time. Post-World War Two, communication was mechanistic and consisted of one sender, a broadcast message, and many receivers.
However, in the years after his model was released, Lasswell stressed that his model could be adapted to a range of contexts.
In 1968, for example, he noted that it could be used to analyze political discourse and added several more components.
In the late 1990s, several scholars also equated “effect” with “feedback” and used it in various social, economic, and cultural contexts.
Lasswell created a graphical model
There is also an assumption that Lasswell created the graphical model behind his theory.
However, it was first mentioned by Denis Mcquail and Sven Windahl in their 1981 book Communication Models for the Study of Mass Communications.
Further analysis of the model and how it was applied to Lasswell’s theory has discovered potential inconsistencies.
Perhaps the most salient is that Mcquail and Windahl used arrows pointing from left to right to give the impression of linear communication.
However, experts argue that Lasswell’s categories of questions are just that. There is nothing in the theory suggesting communication must progress through the categories linearly.
Lasswell’s model is outdated
Some also consider Lasswell’s model outdated for obvious reasons.
But when the theory is perceived as more than a simple linear model and instead as a general concept, we discover that it has more utility and relevance today.
This can be demonstrated by the way in which Lasswell’s concept has been cited in literature over the past few decades.
Indeed, it has been adapted as a maxim, index, model, formula, paradigm, and dictum, among other uses.
Linear vs. Non-linear communication
While the Lasswell mode of communication is more comprehensive compared to other linear models, like the Shannon communication model, it’s still a linear model whose main focus is to understand the technical nuances of communication.
Indeed, compared to other linear models of communication, the Lasswell model takes into account group dynamics that might affect communication.
That is critical, as in the real world, made of human interactions, noise is the rule, rather than the exception.
And a communication model that works for human interactions must address this sort of “cognitive noise,” which is part of human communications.
Thus, wherewith linear models of communication have a more technical focus, like the Shannon model, the Lasswell model is a bit more nuanced.
However, just like the Shannon model, this is skewed toward understanding the technical nuances of communication.
And the Lasswell model focuses on mass communication, vs. the Shannon model is more skewed toward simple two-person communication types.
Thus, the Lasswell model tries to understand how communication is affected in a group dynamic from a technical standpoint.
Laswell’s model of communication today
Here is a look at another Lasswell model example.
This time, we will discuss the broader ways in which modern media companies communicate with their customers.
As technology and the internet continue to evolve, it is clear Lasswell’s model is becoming increasingly relevant.
1 – Who?
Lasswell noted in the late 1940s that the entity sending the message was mostly television and radio-based media.
Today, the impact of so-called “new media” online has increased the diversity of communication. The internet allows anyone with a modicum of knowledge to publish and broadcast information for myriad purposes.
Among these online communicators exists a wide spectrum of topic authority, expertise, credibility, honesty, and bias.
2 – Says what?
Lasswell was concerned with underlying themes or messages present in the media.
He analyzed this via content representation, where the number of occurrences of a specific representation was compared to an objective measure such as official statistics.
In the new media environment of the 21st century, publishers can subvert traditional media channels and cater to virtually every type of consumer.
The sheer number of communicators also means those in minority or otherwise overlooked groups have more chance of media representation.
As the number of publishers increases, so too does the diversity and complexity of the messages that are transmitted.
The rise of so-called “fake news” is one negative consequence of a free and accessible media landscape.
3 – In which channel?
Technology has come a long way since radio and print media. Messages are now sent via blogs, emails, podcasts, video games, search engines, social media, cellphone texts, and even newer concepts such as the metaverse.
Within each channel, the message is crafted or altered according to its intended purpose.
In defining new media, researcher Vin Crosbie described interpersonal media as “one to one”, the mass media of Lasswell’s day as “one to many”, and new media as “many to many”.
4 – To whom?
As noted above, Lasswell’s model was developed at a time when mass media was dominant.
As a result, he considered the audience to be a broad group of people like all the citizens of a nation or the readership of a magazine.
Messages intended for new media are crafted or altered according to the behaviors, status, and needs of the target audience.
While it is estimated that there are over 4.66 billion internet users worldwide, transmitting messages to a broad swathe of people is no longer considered a worthwhile strategy for modern businesses.
5 – With what effect?
In an increasingly distracted and competitive world, the primary goal of new media marketing messages is to attract the audience’s attention.
Once attention has been earned, there may be one or more secondary goals such as:
- Increased brand awareness or purchase intention.
- Altered voting preferences, and
- Public awareness and guidance during a crisis, such as the COVID-19 pandemic.
For online companies, it is easy to track whether the message had the intended effect using analytics software.
Fukushima disaster Lasswell Model of communication case study
Let’s now take a look at a real-world example of the Lasswell communication model.
On 11 March 2011, an earthquake off the coast of Japan caused a tsunami that disabled the power supply to a nuclear power plant in Fukushima.
How did this disaster play out in the media according to Lasswell’s five components of communication?
1 – Who
News of the disaster was reported in broadcasts all over the world. Many of these were from influential news outlets such as CNN, Reuters, and the BBC.
However, there was also communication of the disaster via amateur footage captured by those on the ground.
Japanese emergency response authorities were best equipped to communicate the disaster to those most at risk, following a similar approach to the way in which civilians were evacuated from the Chernobyl disaster in 1986.
The operator of the nuclear plant, Tokyo Electric Power Co., was also a sender of important information.
2 – What
The aforementioned emergency response authorities ordered an immediate evacuation of 109,000 people within a 20km radius of the nuclear plant.
On March 12, the Japanese Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) communicated that radiation levels near Fukushima’s front entrance were more than eight times higher than normal.
As the extent and severity of the disaster become apparent, Japanese Emperor Akihito held a televised address urging citizens to understand and help one another.
One month later, on April 12, NISA announced the disaster had reached Level 7 or ”major accident” status.
This was noted as a ”major release of radioactive material with widespread health and environmental effects requiring implementation of planned and extended countermeasures.”
3 – In which channel?
Information on the Fukushima disaster was transmitted via television, radio, newspaper, and various online channels.
Following the earthquake, a tsunami alert siren also sounded throughout Fukushima and adjacent areas to warn residents of imminent danger.
4 – To whom?
The Fukushima disaster was communicated to citizens all over the world. But as noted in the previous sections, most initial messages were intended for those who lived within a 20km radius of the nuclear plant.
However, the subsequent tsunami was much larger in extent, inundating 561 square kilometers of land and affecting over 600,000 residents.
In areas where electricity had not been impacted, residents in low-lying or coastal areas were told to evacuate.
5 – With what effect?
The intended effect of communicating the Fukushima disaster was to increase public awareness of a life-threatening disaster – whether that be from radiation, building collapse, or flooding.
Part of Lasswell’s model also considers the extent to which the communications(s) had the desired effect.
The order by authorities to evacuate residents within a defined radius was seen by many as too effective.
This is because an additional 45,000 residents fled their homes in non-affected areas, which placed further strain on resources.
With respect to information communicated about the tsunami, it was found that hazard maps delineating risk levels caused communities in low-risk areas to become complacent.
These maps were also based on scientific modeling that did not account for a wave of the magnitude that occurred in the Fukushima disaster.
To ensure better communication in future events, the Japanese Meteorological Agency (JMA) expanded its tsunami warning network by installing broadband seismometers and offshore monitoring systems.
Clothing brand Lasswell Model of communication case study
Imagine that a clothing brand is sending a marketing email to a list of prospects.
We’ll describe this process using Lasswell’s model of communication.
The communicator is an outdoor company that sells tents, cookware, hiking shoes, kayaks, compasses, first aid kits, camping equipment, and associated items.
The company is an authority on the topic of outdoor living and various sub-topics because it has been in operation for over 50 years.
Many staff have qualifications in outdoor education, outdoor leadership, and orienteering or are otherwise knowledgeable about outdoor products and survival in nature.
The company is also a firm believer in environmentally friendly products and environmental stewardship in general.
Says what? (Message)
The message is the email sent to subscribers of the company’s email list. The email is part promotion and part education.
Subscribers are warned of the imminent summer season when temperatures and wildlife become hazardous, but there are also tips on how to enjoy the outdoors safely and a list of recommended products.
These products include hydration packs, summer tents, and water purifiers.
The underlying theme of the communication is framed as a battle between man and nature how man can survive.
The company paints the harsh realities of extreme summer temperatures as the villain and its own products as the heroes.
But it does so in such a way that its environmental values are upheld.
In which channel? (Medium)
The medium transmits the message from the sender to the receiver. In this case, emails are sent via the internet.
Whilst the outdoor company has been around for over 50 years, it is a family-owned business and thus does not have a substantial advertising budget.
The marketing team has experienced limited success with other internet-based channels such as contextual video ads.
However, it finds that the effectiveness, control, and affordability of email marketing are difficult to beat.
To whom? (Audience)
The audience is a list of subscribers who are outdoor enthusiasts.
Most have purchased something from the company in the past, while a smaller subset has signed up for a newsletter for advice on outdoor products and access to store discounts.
To measure whether its communication has the intended effect, the company’s marketing team analyzes email and sales data against campaign KPIs.
The company’s core demographic is predominantly middle-aged males between the ages of 25 and 44.
Research shows that this audience tends to live near the coast or mountains, and is 22% more likely than the average consumer to earn an annual income over $100,000.
Not surprisingly, these individuals are interested in outdoor or even extreme sports and like to be associated with organizations that share their environmental values.
With what effect? (Effect)
The outdoor company wants its email subscribers to purchase equipment from them.
After reading information on how to prepare for the summer reason, the company includes a call to action and links to where subscribers can purchase the products.
- The Lasswell communication model is a linear framework for explaining the communication process through segmentation. It was developed by American political scientist and communication theorist Harold Lasswell in 1948.
- The Lasswell communication model was based on a study of media propaganda across various countries and businesses and the role it played in mass communication.
- The Lasswell communication model is comprised of five components, with each component asking the receiver to critically analyze various aspects of the message.
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