The great Canadian futurist and philosopher of media, Marshall McLuhan, once said: “We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us”. However, could we have ever imagined that our tools may have the potential to control our dreams? Pink Floyd saw it coming in their song ‘Welcome to the Machine’ (3:14 – 4:29). Buckle up folks, we may all soon be living through an episode of Futurama and brands will be the beneficiaries. Now, to truly freak out with a glimpse into a possible future, check out this dystopian video called “Branded Dreams”. Even though the brand wasn’t mentioned, most people will recognize this is a dream (or nightmare) for Coca-Cola.
If you think all of this is just ‘crazy sci-fi stuff’, think again. Earlier this year, an American Marketing Association study of 400 marketers found that 77% of them plan on deploying dream-marketing techniques within the next three years! How will brands potentially be able to influence your dreams? The answer is through a technique called Targeted Dream Incubation (TDI).
Targeted Dream Incubation (TDI): How to Hack a Sleeping Brain
It is believed that dream incubation stretches back more than 5,000 years to ancient Egypt. Over the years, there have been steady advances in research showing what is technologically possible while humans are asleep. A 2014 study showed that dream incubation techniques could help reduce smoking for a group of participants. Specifically, experiments were conducted that associated the scent of cigarettes to the scent of rotten fish while participants were sleeping. Learned through sleep, this association showed that participants were less likely to smoke. Now, researchers are studying and attempting to influence the bigger picture: Dreams.
Without getting too technical to bore you to sleep (HA HA), there is a lot to uncover about recent learnings of TDI. Targeted Dream Incubation (TDI) is known as a “protocol for reactivating memories during sleep in a manner that leads to incorporation of the targeted memory, or related memories, into dream content”. In other words, scientists are studying which segments in our sleep pattern are the easiest to “break into” and influence dream content.
In essence, dreams are simulations and research has shown that these simulations have a “permeable barrier” to penetrate. Studies show that the best time to introduce targeted information to an individual’s sleep is during the first phase called hypnogognia – a state of semi-consciousness where the person can still hear and process audio before falling asleep. The sounds played during this time can be used as a gateway to the sleeper’s mind, thus enacting the TDI. When a routine of audio and visual stimuli is presented to a person prior to their sleep, research has shown that they can be represented during REM sleep.
Early Marketing Attempts at Targeting Dream Incubation
Marketers have already started to explore the potential of advertising in dreams. The night before Super Bowl LV (2021), the beverage company Molson Coors ran what they called the ‘World’s Largest Dream Study’. With the help of Dr. Deirdre Barret, a Harvard psychologist who designed the study, the “Coors Dream Project” came to life through visual positive images of the well-known branded mountains and a soundscape for an audio stimulus placed into the minds of sleeping consumers. The campaign partnered with popstar Zayn Malik on Instagram Live, to feature him falling asleep after watching the Coors video the night before the game.
The Coors video dream incubation video can be viewed here. It was recommended that for “maximum effect, the viewer is supposed to watch the short film three times successfully and fall asleep to the soundscape”. Did it work? The study results showed partial success with 5 out of 18 participants reported dreaming of the Coors product. However, it was later learned that 12 of the 18 participants were paid actors. Malik also turned negative on the campaign and called the procedure of putting “a commercial inside your dreams, kind of messed up’. Nevertheless, the fact that Coors invested in TDI for such an important sporting event suggests that the stage has been set for the future use of marketing in dreams.
The Future of Advertising in Dreams
Where does marketer’s goal of influencing dreams go from here? There are many promising avenues for marketers to pursue the goal of Targeted Dream Incubation. Today, many researchers and companies are actively developing technologies for ‘Brain Computer Interfaces’ (BCI). Brain-computer interfaces (BCI) are devices that enable direct communication between a brain and an external device. How advanced is this technology? BCIs now enable typing onto a screen and allow amputees to move robotic limbs merely through their thoughts. There are literally dozens of companies investing in BCI technologies including Neurable, NextMind, Kernal, and Paradromics. Elon Musk’s company, Neuralink, is one BCI company that is currently getting a lot of press. Musk notes that his brain-computer interface could one day help humans merge with AI, record their memories or even download their consciousness. Another company, Singularity Hub reports that a new brain implant turns thoughts into text with 90% accuracy.
In the future, Marketers can potentially utilize the data obtained from Brain Computer Interfaces. For example, if brain waves show someone is anxious or troubled, then targeted advertisements can be sent to that person for products to reduce anxiety. When influencing dreams, however, the direction is reversed. Rather than reading brain waves, is it possible for marketers to ‘inject’ thoughts, images or dreams into the brain through BCI technology? Research is showing this may indeed be possible. Researchers at the University of Rochester have managed to introduce information directly into the premotor cortex of monkeys. Given the pace of technological advancement, how long will it be until we can do this with humans?
While the use of BCIs to influence dreams sounds extreme, other researchers are investigating the use of technology that is less invasive. Scientists at MIT have developed Dormio, a TDI-enabling device that is worn on the user’s hand. MIT scientists reported that when using Dormio “all of our subjects indeed dreamed about themes chosen by experimenters prior to subject sleep”.
Ethical and Privacy Concerns with Dream Advertising
The possibility of advertisers invading people’s dreams is raising privacy and ethical concerns. Harvard medical school professor, Robert Stickgold, reports that sleep and dream researchers are deeply concerned about the use of advertising and marketing in dreams. Recently, a group of top sleep and dream researchers signed a petition that stated 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.”
Where will regulation in this emerging field come from? The Federal Trade Commission would be a logical choice to investigate this issue. We recommend the FTC be proactive and begin investigating and regulating this area sooner, rather than later.
Advertising in dreams. Is this really possible and how soon might it happen? Before you answer, we will let you sleep on it.
Account Executive, TrackDDB
Professor David Rice
Schulich School of Business, York University
Executive Director, Future of Marketing Institute