Earlier this year, Coors Brewing launched a new ad campaign designed to infiltrate people’s dreams. The goal, of course, was to get people to buy Coors beer,
Coors encouraged people to watch a short online video before bed, then play an eight-hour “soundscape” through the night. If successful, this “targeted dream incubation” would trigger “refreshing dreams” of Coors, according to the company.
Here’s the video:
Bob Stickgold, a cognitive neuroscientist and professor of psychiatry at Harvard medical school, is one of the co-authors of a recent open letter that sounded the alarm over companies using targeted dream incubation (TDI). The letter was signed by 35 sleep and dream researchers from around the world.
“TDI-advertising is not some fun gimmick, but a slippery slope with real consequences,” the letter warned. “The potential for misuse of these technologies is as ominous as it is obvious.”
The concept of dream incubation – “techniques employed during wakefulness to help a person dream about a specific topic” – has been around for thousands of years, according to researchers.
In the more recent past, Salvador Dalí was given to the practice of holding a spoon while napping, in an attempt to enhance his creativity. When Dalí began to fall into a deeper slumber, and hopefully dream, the spoon would drop from his hand onto a pre-positioned dinner plate, waking him up in a state where he could remember the images or scenes he had – briefly – dreamt.
Over the past decade, research has shown that people’s dreams can be more targeted, and that humans can be highly susceptible to thoughts or ideas introduced while they sleep.
A 2014 study found that smokers exposed to the smell of cigarettes and rotten eggs while they slept smoked 30% fewer cigarettes during the following week, while Stickgold said other work had shown that racial bias can be reduced by targeted dream incubation.
While much of the research so far has been aimed at positive results, scientists fear the threat of dream advertising is real, and in an increasingly wired world it is not likely to be limited to willing participation.
To sell a project involuntarily through dreams, the potential advertising campaign would have to be linked to adverts people see while they are awake.
Stickgold said it could potentially be done by playing a certain sound every time a product – a Coors beer, or a Corrs album, for example – is seen during a television or YouTube advert.
Replaying that sound while someone is sleeping, potentially through a home device, would, in theory, then trigger dreams about how nice it would be to drink a beer, or listen to an Irish guitar and violin-driven musical ensemble. For example, advertisers could pay to have Alexa play such sounds at 2.30 in the morning.
The June letter called for stricter regulation on advertising, to prevent products from being thrust into dreams. Stickgold said the Federal Trade Commission already restricts some subliminal advertising, such as the flashing of words or images during films or TV shows, and would be able to intervene. And TDI might fall under such a regulation.
Here is a three-minute video for those of you who are interested in some additional behind-the-scenes info about this advertising campaign. I am quite surprised, given that this video was prepared by Coors, that they left in a clip that asks someone if he thinks this is ethical, and he never gives an answer.
Personally, I’d like to voluntarily participate in such an experiment, just to see if it worked.
But I’m not sure I want Alexa secretly saying things in the middle of the night that are meant for my wife, but may cause me to go out shopping for a dress the next morning for myself…