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Advertising in Dreams is Coming: Now What?

An opinion piece on recent developments in dream incubation technologies and their ethical implications

Published onJun 07, 2021
Advertising in Dreams is Coming: Now What?

Molson Coors recently announced a new kind of advertising campaign. Timed for the days before Super Bowl Sunday, it was designed to infiltrate our dreams [1]. They planned to use "targeted dream incubation" (TDI) [2] to alter the dreams of the nearly 100 million Super Bowl viewers the night before the game—specifically, to have them dream about Coors beer in a clean, refreshing, mountain environment—and presumably then drink their beer while watching the Super Bowl. Participants in what Coors called ‘the world’s largest dream study’ would get half off on a 12 pack of Coors; if they sent the link to a friend who also incubated their dreams, the 12 pack was free. With this campaign, Coors is proudly pioneering a new form of intrusive marketing. “Targeted Dream Incubation (TDI) is a never-before-seen form of advertising,” says Marcelo Pascoa, Vice President of Marketing at Molson Coors [3]. 

With brain imaging techniques beginning to capture the core contents of people’s dreams [4] and sleep studies establishing real-time communication between researchers and sleeping dreamers [5], the kind of dream incubation until recently assumed to be the pure science fiction of movies like Inception is now becoming reality. Coors is not the only company expressing interest in using these novel dream incubation technologies: Xbox's Made From Dreams uses TDI to give professional gamers dreams of their favorite video games, while Playstation advertises a new Tetris game based on a sleep study demonstrating that gameplay incubates Tetris dreams [5]. In 2018, Burger King created a "nightmare" burger for Halloween, claiming that a sleep laboratory study had ‘clinically proven’ it would induce nightmares [6]. And multiple marketing studies are openly testing new ways to alter and motivate purchasing behavior through dream and sleep hacking [7, 8]. The commercial, for-profit use of dream incubation is rapidly becoming a reality. 

Traditions of dream incubation—techniques employed during wakefulness to help a person dream about a specific topic—go back thousands of years and span indigenous practices across the globe. Over the last few years, brain scientists have begun to develop scientific tools that facilitate this incubation of specific dream content [2], making dream incubation more targeted and measurable, and allowing scientific experimentation on the nature and function of dreaming. They use sensors to determine when an individual’s sleeping brain is receptive to external stimuli and, at these times, introduce smells, sounds, flashing lights or even speech to influence the content of our dreams [9]. 

Dreams have ties to people’s well-being [10, 11], and dream content can predict how well someone will adapt to waking challenges and concerns, including those related to trauma and depression [12, 13]. Altering dream content can augment our creativity, boost our mood, and help us learn [14, 15]. We believe that targeted intervention in sleep and dreams could help alleviate several psychiatric conditions including depression and PTSD [12]. We know that targeted delivery of odors during sleep can help combat addiction; participants exposed during their sleep to the smells of cigarettes along with those of rotten eggs smoked 30% fewer cigarettes over the following week [16]. Researchers have not yet tested whether TDI can instead worsen addiction, but the Coors study, which paired images of beer cans not with odious smells but with images of clean mountain streams, may shine a disturbing light on this question. Regardless, such interventions clearly influence the choices our sleeping and dreaming brain make in how to interpret the events from our day, and how to use memories of these events in planning our future, biasing the brain's decisions toward whatever information was presented during sleep [17, 18].

These questions and developments should be considered in the broader context of sleep and memory research. The last twenty years have been a watershed for sleep research during which we have come to understand the importance of sleep for our memories and emotional health. It is while we sleep that our brain decides which memories to keep and which to forget, and how to organize those it keeps [19, 20]. It also can choose to keep the gist or the emotional core of a memory while letting other details be forgotten [20, 21]. Through this nocturnal process, the brain shapes the memories that together create our autobiographical past, our sense of who we are now, and our understanding of how best to live our lives in the future.

More recent studies have shown that dreaming represents another aspect of this nightly memory evolution. Our dreams are not attempts to suppress undesirable wishes, nor are they simply the result of random brain activity during sleep. Dreaming represents an evolved mechanism for exploring the relevance and importance of older memories to newer ones, seeking to position the events of our day among the innumerable memories and concepts we have accumulated across a lifetime [18], helping to make us just a bit wiser in the process. 

For now, TDI-based advertising requires our active participation, for example choosing to play an 8-hour Coors soundtrack while we sleep. But it is easy to envision a world in which smart speakers—40 million Americans currently have them in their bedrooms [22]— become instruments of passive, unconscious overnight advertising, with or without our permission. These tailored soundtracks would become background scenery for our sleep, as the unending billboards that litter American highways have become for our waking life. 

Our dreams cannot become just another playground for corporate advertisers. Regardless of Coors’ intent, their actions set the stage for a corporate assault of our very sense of who we are. And it is not difficult to imagine Coors' ad campaign negatively impacting abstinent alcoholics. Indeed, research has shown that abstinent drug users who report dreaming about their drug-use show higher levels of craving [23]. In the cigarette cessation study mentioned above, not only was the intervention effective in sleep (yet ineffective when the smells were presented during wake), but participants reported no memory of being exposed to these smells in the morning. The potential for misuse of these technologies is as ominous as it is obvious. 

TDI-advertising is not some fun gimmick, but a slippery slope with real consequences. Planting dreams in people’s minds for the purpose of selling products, not to mention addictive substances, raises important ethical questions. The moral line dividing companies selling relaxing rain soundtracks to help people sleep from those embedding targeted dreams to influence consumer behavior is admittedly unclear at the moment. While the Federal Trade Commission has indicated that subliminal ads during wake violate its statute requiring truth in advertising, there is no similar indication regarding exposure to advertisements during sleep. 

As sleep and dream researchers, we are deeply concerned about marketing plans aimed at generating profits at the cost of interfering with our natural nocturnal memory processing. Brain science helped design several addictive technologies, from cell phones to social media, that now shape much of our waking lives; we do not want to see the same happen to our sleep. We believe that proactive action and new protective policies are urgently needed to keep advertisers from manipulating one of the last refuges of our already beleaguered conscious and unconscious minds: Our dreams. 

Robert Stickgold  –  Harvard Medical School, Boston MA, coauthor of When Brains Dream

Antonio Zadra  –  Université de Montréal, Canada, coauthor of When Brains Dream

Adam Haar  –  M.I.T., Cambridge MA, co-developer of TDI tools

Signatories

Judith Amores  –  Harvard Medical School, Boston MA

Thomas Andrillon  –  Monash University, Australia

Kristoffer Appel  –  Institute of Sleep and Dream Technologies, Germany

Ryan Bottary  –  Boston College, Boston MA

Kelly Bulkeley  –  The Sleep and Dream Database, Portland OR

Tony Cunningham  –  Harvard Medical School, Boston MA

Per Davidson  –  Lund University, Sweden

Teresa DeCicco  –  Trent Univ, Canada

Eden Evins  –  Harvard Medical School, Boston MA

Rockelle Guthrie - David Geffen School of Medicine, University of California, Los Angeles 

David Kahn  –  Harvard Medical School, Boston MA

Alexandra Kitson – Simon Fraser University, Canada

Karen Konkoly  –  Northwestern University, Evanston IL

Célia Lacaux  –  Paris Brain Institute (ICM) - Paris, France

Anthony Levasseur - Université de Montréal, Canada

Pattie Maes  –  M.I.T., Cambridge MA

Louis-Philippe Marquis – Université de Montréal, Canada

Patrick McNamara  –  Boston University, Boston MA

Sara Mednick –  University of California, Irvine

Natália Bezerra Mota - Federal University of Pernambuco and Federal University of Rio de Janeiro 

Delphine Oudiette  –  Paris Brain Institute (ICM) - Paris, France

Edward Pace-Schott  –  Harvard Medical School, Boston MA

Ken Paller  –  Northwestern University, Evanston IL

Jessica Payne - University of Notre Dame, South Bend IN

Claudia Picard-Deland - Université de Montréal, Canada

Leila Salvesen - IMT School for Advanced Studies Lucca / Donders Institute

Sophie Schwartz  –  University of Geneva, Switzerland

Paul Seli  –  Duke Univ., Durham NC

Carlyle Smith  – Trent University, Canada

Matthew Spellberg -- Harvard University, Cambridge, MA

Katja Valli  –  University of Turku,  Finland

Tomás Vega  –  M.I.T, Cambridge MA

Erin Wamsley  –  Furman University, SC

Marco Zanasi  –  Torvergata Univ,  Italy

Morteza Zangeneh Soroush - Tehran University of Medical Sciences

(affiliations listed for identification only)

Citations

1. Coors. (2021). The Big Game Commercial of you Dreams. Retrieved from coorsbiggamedream.com.

2. Horowitz, A. H., Cunningham, T. J., Maes, P., & Stickgold, R. (2020). Dormio: A targeted dream incubation device. Consciousness & Cognition, 83, 102938. doi:10.1016/j.concog.2020.102938

3. businesswire.com. (2021). Spend Saturday Night Dreaming With Zayn Malik: Coors Light and Coors Seltzer Entice Chill and Refreshing Dreams. Retrieved from https://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20210204005955/en/.

4. Horikawa, T., Tamaki, M., Miyawaki, Y., & Kamitani, Y. (2013). Neural decoding of visual imagery during sleep. Science, 340(6132), 639-642. doi:10.1126/science.1234330

5. Konkoly, K., Appel, K., Chabani, E., Mironov, A. Y., Mangiaruga, A., Gott, J., . . . Witkowski, S. (2021). Real-time dialogue between experimenters and dreamers during REM sleep. Current Biology, in press. Retrieved from https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3606772

6. foodnetwork.com. (2018). Burger King Says New Burger Is ‘Clinically Proven to Induce Nightmares’. Retrieved from https://www.foodnetwork.com/fn-dish/news/2018/10/burger-king-says-new-burger-is-clinically-proven-to-induce-night.

7. Ai, S., Yin, Y., Chen, Y., Wang, C., Sun, Y., Tang, X., . . . Shi, J. (2018). Promoting subjective preferences in simple economic choices during nap. Elife, 7. doi:10.7554/eLife.40583

8. Mahdavi, M., Fatehi Rad, N., & Barbosa, B. T. r. o. d. o. a. i. p. i. D., 29(3), . https://doi.org/10.1037/drm0000110. (2019). The role of dreams of ads in purchase intention. Dreaming, 29(3), 241–252. doi:https://doi.org/10.1037/drm0000110

9. Solomonova, E., & Carr, C. (2019). Incorporation of external stimuli into dream content. In K. Valli & R. Hoss (Eds.), Dreams: Biology, Psychology and Culture (pp. 213-218). Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group.

10. Pesant, N., & Zadra, A. (2006). Dream content and psychological well-being: a longitudinal study of the continuity hypothesis. J Clin Psychol, 62(1), 111-121. doi:10.1002/jclp.20212

11. Sandman, N., Valli, K., Kronholm, E., Vartiainen, E., Laatikainen, T., & Paunio, T. (2017). Nightmares as predictors of suicide: an extension study including war veterans. Sci Rep, 7, 44756. doi:10.1038/srep44756

12. Cartwright, R. (1991). Dreams that work: The relation of dream incorporation to adaptation to stressful events. Dreaming, 1, 3-9. 

13. Mellman, T. A., David, D., Bustamante, V., Torres, J., & Fins, A. I. (2001). Dreams in the Acute Aftermath of Trauma and Their Relationship to PTSD. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 14, 241-247. doi: https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1007812321136

14. Barrett, D. (2001). The committee of sleep : How artists, scientists, and athletes use dreams for creative problem-solving--and how you can, too. New York: Crown Publishers.

15. Erlacher, D., & Schredl, M. (2010). Practicing a motor task in a lucid dream enhances subsequent performance: A pilot study. The Sport Psychologist, 24(2), 157-167. 

16. Arzi, A., Holtzman, Y., Samnon, P., Eshel, N., Harel, E., & Sobel, N. (2014). Olfactory aversive conditioning during sleep reduces cigarette-smoking behavior. J Neurosci, 34(46), 15382-15393. doi:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.2291-14.2014

17. Hu, X., Antony, J. W., Creery, J. D., Vargas, I. M., Bodenhausen, G. V., & Paller, K. A. (2015). Cognitive neuroscience. Unlearning implicit social biases during sleep. Science, 348(6238), 1013-1015. doi:10.1126/science.aaa3841

18. Zadra, A., & Stickgold, R. (2021). When Brains Dream. New York: W.W. Norton.

19. Dumay, N., & Gaskell, M. G. (2007). Sleep-associated changes in the mental representation of spoken words. Psychological Science, 18(1), 35-39. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/entrez/query.fcgi?cmd=Retrieve&db=PubMed&dopt=Citation&list_uids=17362375 

20. Payne, J. D., Stickgold, R., Swanberg, K., & Kensinger, E. A. (2008). Sleep preferentially enhances memory for emotional components of scenes. Psychological Science, 19(8), 781-788. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02157.x

21. Payne, J. D., Schacter, D. L., Propper, R. E., Huang, L. W., Wamsley, E. J., Tucker, M. A., . . . Stickgold, R. (2009). The role of sleep in false memory formation. Neurobiol Learn Mem, 92(3), 327-334. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/entrez/query.fcgi?cmd=Retrieve&db=PubMed&dopt=Citation&list_uids=19348959 

22. voicebot.ai. (2020). Yes. The Bedroom is Now the Most Popular Location for Smart Speakers. Here’s Why and What it Means. Retrieved from https://voicebot.ai/2020/04/30/yes-the-bedroom-is-now-the-most-popular-location-for-smart-speakers-heres-why-and-what-it-means/.

23. Tanguay, H., Zadra, A., Good, D., & Leri, F. (2015). Relationship between drug dreams, affect, and craving during treatment for substance dependence. J Addict Med, 9(2), 123-129. doi:10.1097/ADM.0000000000000105

Coors ad: (https://youtu.be/tU_0jU0mMLw)

Comments
1
DB
Deirdre Barrett: A reflection on the letter, “Advertising in Dreams is Coming: Now What?” The journal Science has just published a web article on the title letter and asked me to what extent I agreed with its concerns about dream-linked ads and what points I disagreed with. I prepared answers for their reporter—which were, of course, too lengthy for them to quote in their entirety. The full version of my response to them forms the core of this post with some further editing: I completely agree with the passionately expressed core premise of that letter: the absolute ethical unacceptability of “passive, unconscious overnight advertising, with or without our permission” that the letter predicts will follow these few dream-linked advertisements. However, I believe the call for “new protective policies [that] are urgently needed” reflects a lack of familiarity with current statutes barring deceptive advertising. In the US, Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act prohibits “unfair or deceptive acts or practices in or affecting commerce” including advertising that a reasonable consumer wouldn’t recognize to be an advertisement. Any potentially non-recognizable ad must be labeled “prominently and unambiguously with information necessary to prevent deception.” This is why items that otherwise look like news stories in the margins of physical publications or webpages always carrying a bold face announcement at the top: “Paid advertising.” The FTC requires that each such advertisement and each presentation of it to a consumer must repeat that labeling. This FTC prohibition of deceptive advertising applies across all media and automatically includes new ones as they emerge. At the very least, any attempt to play ads designed for sleepers would have to feature anti-deception statements for every advertisement that was going to play that night. The Coors ad campaign included a clear and detailed description of what would be heard on their nocturnal auditory track. This would have been off-putting if applied to multiple advertisements — or to ones the customer wasn’t already feeling positive about. The FTC has the power to levy hefty fines for violations of this statute. The “Advertising in Dreams is Coming . . . “ letter observes that the FTC does not have a specific clarifying statement for deceptive sleep advertising as they do for some other types of deception. However, the FTC repeatedly emphasizes that the deception statute applies to anything falling under the extremely broad prohibition and that they issue the specific guidelines only for areas that garner a large number of attempted violations. Other countries represented by the letter’s signees are ones with equal or higher citizen protection for most issues, so they are likely on top of these issues — but the FTC for sure has these dystopian future fantasies already well covered. The letter opens with a description of the Coors project which is misinformed on several key points. It describes it as for “the nearly 100 million Super Bowl viewers.” The Coors ad did not run during the Super Bowl. It did not run on any paid media. It ran on Coors’ own website. You could learn of it if you already followed Coors on Twitter or Instagram, or when publicity releases about it were picked up for stories about the campaign. The letter also describes Coors offering half price for a six pack if one did the dream incubation procedure. The website offered a free six pack of their low-alcohol seltzer with purchase of a six pack of their beer and offered the dream incubation video — no contingency — you could do either, neither, or both. The opening of the letter further described the Coors ad as “designed to infiltrate our dreams [ital. mine].” That phrase might confuse anyone not already familiar with dream incubation which is a voluntary activity in which dreamers focus intent on content they wish to appear in their dreams. At other points in the letter, it is acknowledged that the Coors project included accurate information, consent, and active participation — that’s when the letter is contrasting The Coors campaign with the “slippery slope” toward [FTC prohibited] deception — but the opening paragraph’s language implies otherwise for the Coors ad itself. We researchers are aware of four examples of dream-linked advertising amid hundreds of thousands of advertising campaigns over the past decade—and there must be a few smaller ones which haven’t come to our attention. I don’t agree this portends an impending wave as the letter signees suggest. Quite the opposite: all four emphasized the novelty factor of a dream-linked advertisement as the main reason they were producing one. The letter contains numerous citations which are accurate for the specific sentence they’re attached to. However, they do not cumulatively support the more central implied premise of that reference-filled paragraph: that dream or sleep-linked advertising would be especially powerful even if the FTC allowed it. My read of the scientific literature is that there is scant evidence to suggest that sleep or dream-related advertisements would be nearly as effective as ones presented to a wide-awake consumer. There is a long history of attempts to play sleep-learning tapes with materials such as foreign languages. By the 1950’s, studies had established that only occasionally was a bit of such material learned — probably through micro-awakenings; more recent neuroscience demonstrates that auditory areas of the brain show some response but areas necessary for understanding the material are not sufficiently active. Simple cues of previously learned material during sleep have modest reinforcement effects but there is no evidence they equal or exceed that of further standard practice awake. Another relevant area is that of paired stimuli for aversive or positive conditioning. The tobacco study which is the one most emphasized in the letter is cherry-picked as one small experiment in which sleep presentation of paired smells evidenced a short-term effect on waking behavior. This is indeed interesting, but it hasn’t to date been replicated, and hasn’t been repeated with positive stimuli conditioning — which would be the more relevant to advertising. I think it may well hold up that sleep pairing can have waking effects, but the study’s finding that the waking pairing did not do so is definitely an anomaly. Hundreds of research studies over decades have demonstrated that pairing a previously desirable stimulus with an aversive one can produce avoidance of the first stimulus. Pairing a neutral stimulus with a positive one causing effective conditioning was demonstrated over a century ago with Pavlov’s famous dogs. So, waking positive, as well as aversive, conditioning works — often dramatically. The burden of proof is on sleep conditioning to prove effectiveness at anywhere near the same level. The letter says dream advertising is not “some fun gimmick” but I don’t find that a completely inappropriate term for the ads it references: a green bun “nightmare burger” at Halloween or a dream stimulus film of beautiful mountains, a talking fish and anthropomorphic dancing beer cans. More importantly for dream researchers, such ads present an opportunity for education about dreaming — ideally within the ad campaign itself, but more often via the resulting news features where we can respond with more information about dream incubation, nightmares, or the implications of the Tetris study. Science asked me about questions raised by other researchers about the ethics of consulting on a beer ad specifically. I’m comfortable with the present FTC guidelines that allow advertising of alcohol but in more restricted media, time slots, and age groups than with other products. As already mentioned, the Coors dream ad did not play on television in the midst of entertainment shows. Their announcements of it required going to the Coors site, so unlike most alcohol the ad campaigns, there was virtually no chance that an alcoholic in a period of tenuous sobriety would stumble upon it by accident — and that is the main potential downside I see to advertising of alcoholic beverages. Finally, Science asked how my experience “with Coors” was and whether I enjoyed consulting on that project. My experience with the Coors company itself was very limited but completely positive. I interacted with Coors’ director of publicity toward the end of the campaign and she understood scientific facts easily and was interested in reporting them accurately. My experience consulting with the advertising agency who produced the campaign and most of its publicity was mixed. They initially expressed interest in my suggestions for presenting broader psychoeducation about dream incubation but did not ultimately include any of that in the incubation instructions. Some of it made it into a short documentary about the project posted to YouTube, but that short film juxtaposed my interview with footage from the ad agency’s small trial run of the stimulus film in a way that one could think meant I had input into the trial. I’d actually advised against it —suggesting a larger trial which people did at home because it would be 1) more similar to what the rest of their viewers would experience with the dream incubation and 2) it would be safer given that LA was widely being described as the “epicenter” of the COVID outbreak at the time of the trial run. I think their dream stimulus film itself (for which they did take some of my advice) was pleasant, and clearly labeled as to being advertising and to being intended only for those over 21. However, the terminology in their publicity, and to a lesser extent the stimulus film’s instructions, such as “targeted dream incubation” and “implanting dreams” had overtones of sci-fi and/or military mind-control experimentation. I told the ad company staff  repeatedly that the key term was simply, “dream incubation.” I was unsuccessful in persuading them to abandon the hyperbolic phrases and I am disappointed to see them echoed in a letter from those familiar with the standard terminology. Some of my frustration as consultant on this recent project stemmed from the contrast to my only other experience with a dream-themed advertisement — Honda’s 2009 “Dreams vs. Nightmares,” which played in film theaters and streaming video service pop-up ads. I was a paid interviewee for that project rather than a consultant but ended up completely pleased, not just with my part, but also with the entire short piece as entertaining, accurate, and educational. Interestingly, Honda contracted with a noted documentary filmmaker, Joe Berlinger, rather than an ad agency per se for that project. The experience with Joe led to unrealistically high expectations for the integrity and psychological sophistication of those producing dream-linked advertising. Nevertheless, on balance, I believe the Coors ad was a pleasant experience for viewers, an introduction to dream incubation that could be applied to more substantive topics of their choosing, and that the resulting journalistic articles about the campaign gave me and others the opportunity to elaborate on incubation for dream creativity, problem solving and therapeutic applications.