How far do you think advertisers would go to encourage you to buy their products? According to alarmed scientists, pretty damn far… even as far as our dreams.
It might sound dystopian, but we promise this isn’t the plot of Inception or the latest season of Black Mirror.
Called “targeted dream incubation”, the process aims to trigger dreams about the advertised product, persuading you to buy it upon waking. Think of it as billboards plastered all over people’s dreams ala downtown New York.
Wow, that’s a sentence we never thought we’d have to write. Ladies and gentlemen, say hello to dream advertising.
Scientists and sleep scientists reacted in horror when this method was used to promote Coors beer. As a result, they are seeking protection to safeguard our dreams. 📺 💤
Dream Incubation Is Nothing New
For as long as humans have inhabited the earth, we have viewed dream content as an extension of our reality. And for whatever reason, ancient civilisations, too, were set on hijacking them.
Dreams inform the spiritual rules, beliefs and ancestral relationships of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders — although, in the words of Maggie Fletcher: (‘Dreaming’ interpretation and representation) “, Dreamtime” or “Dreaming” is better described as “an entire epistemology.”
Dreaming also merges with waking life for the Indigenous Peoples of North America, as the spiritual world passes on knowledge through dreams.
Today, sleep and dream researchers want to get inside our heads to treat sleep-related problems and understand the psychology behind our dreams. Using targeted dream incubation, neuroscientists have reduced the number of PTSD-based nightmares in patients.
According to one dream study, sleep researchers have successfully used incubation to turn addicts away from addictive substances such as cigarettes — the irony being, scientists are also worried about the effect of sleep-targeted incubation (in advertising) on those with nicotine addiction).
The potential of TDI as a treatment has room to grow in the future as brain scientists conduct more research into the world of dreams. But will that growth worth also lead to being bombarded with stimuli that might change our dream content in favour of multi-billion companies?
How Does Dream Incubation Work?
Controlling your dreams to focus on one specific topic is no easy feat. Scientists themselves haven’t figured out a way to do it consistently.
Of course, this still hasn’t stopped researchers from trying.
In 2000, Harvard neuroscientists had patients play Tetris for more than three days. The results? 60 % of participants dreamed about Tetris and those colourful falling blocks.
This study and others like it demonstrate that long and intensive exposure to certain subjects can impact our dreams.
Studies have shown that hypnagogia, the state of “slipping into sleep“, is crucial for incubation, as you are halfway between consciousness and unconsciousness, but the senses are still open to external encouragements.
Using prompts geared towards a specific subject or object, a person should dream about the theme exposed to them shortly before sleep.
The Coors Effect
All this sleep talk makes me thirsty, so what does a beer company have to do with dream incubation?
Earlier this year, when Americans were getting hyped about the Super Bowl, Coors, a billion-dollar beverage company, was barred from advertising during the game. The NFL had an exclusive contract with a competitor, meaning Coors could only advertise before touchdown (i.e. the day before the game). 🏈
Coors advertised the benefits of targeted dream manipulation to steal the thunder from their competitor the day before the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Kansas City Chiefs face-off. Talk about a touchdown for Coors Light. Cue earworm-inducing soundtracks.
The night before the game, viewers were encouraged to watch a short video before bed. Prior to hitting the sack, they would play an eight-hour soundscape to advance the dream incubation process.
If done correctly, Super Bowl fans would supposedly dream about Coors beer and rush to the store to grab a cold one the next day (in real life!).
The Fallout from the Advert
The ad might have amused some spectators, but scientists from top universities, like Harvard Medical School, MIT, and the Paris Brain Institute, found it alarming.
The 40 scientists published an op-ed (Advertising in Dreams is Coming: Now What?), warning corporate advertisers of the dangers of advertising through targeted dream incubation.
“Dream incubation advertising is not some fun gimmick”, they wrote, “but a slippery slope with real consequences.”
The open letter noted that several other companies had also begun their own dream incubations projects. These companies include Microsoft with their Xbox console, Playstation for a new Tetris game, and Burger King in 2018 to advertise their nightmarish Halloween-themed burger.
What about the Results?
Whatever the intentions of Coors’ advertising campaign, a Harvard University dream researcher assisted with its creation.
Coors consulted Deirdre Barrett, Harvard Assistant Professor of Psychology, and he saw the campaign as a fun way to educate viewers about the reality of dream incubation.
The ad only played on the Coors website and not mainstream media platforms, so the company’s risk of brainwashing the American public was small.
Only 18 individuals participated in the ad, 12 of which were actors; they were then exposed to a 90-second clip of cool air, rushing waterfalls, and… (you guessed it!) Coors beer.
Afterwards, the eight-hour soundscape played as they slept. Only five participants dreamt about gulping down an icy bottle of Coors. 🍺
The threat of TDI
Although the Coors ad campaign might have been gimmicky and, ultimately, unsuccessful, Adam Haar, one of the op-ed co-authors, still warned about the dangers of TDI misuse.
He noted that people are open and vulnerable to suggestions during sleep. Using this unconscious state, companies can push any of their products to unsuspecting and naïve consumers.
Bob Stickgold, a cognitive neuroscientist and another of the op-ed writers, also highlighted the risks of corporations promoting addictive substances such as alcohol through TDI.
Advertising has hit new milestones with the proliferation of social media. Using analytic tools, advertisers can pinpoint which online users are more likely to be receptive to their ads.
TDI could potentially bring the same laser-targeted advertising schemes to your dreams. It’s even possible to broadcast audio triggers through smart speakers like Alexa as more families integrate these technologies into their homes.
What Can We Do about Dream Manipulation in Advertising?
Despite the possible misuse of the dream incubation process, you can put your mind (and dreams) at rest, for now, as laws are being put in place to protect us from dream exploitation.
The open letter of Haar, Zadra and Stickgold called for far stricter regulations against advertisers. And the Federal Trade Commission already prohibits some subliminal advertising, such as word or image-flashes appearing in movies or television shows.
Government agencies in other countries may also enact similar restrictions to safeguard the minds and privacy of individuals and families, as invasive advertising becomes a more significant threat to our everyday lives.
Sleep Tight Tonight, Knowing Ads Are Far from Your Dreams
Advertisers can’t market their products in your dreams for now, though the possibility exists. So, we don’t need to invent an Adblock for our brain… just yet.
Although it may well be the “new frontier in advertising”, whether TDI will be banned entirely or restricted is yet to be seen.
For now, you can rest easy, as there is no current threat of advertisers intruding on your dreams… (that we know of!) 🥴