Are companies trying to put advertisements in our dreams?

The concept of advertisers reaching us through our dreams was once science-fiction, but is slowly but surely becoming a reality.
  • The development of Targeted Dream Incubation
  • Dream incubation for marketing
  • Inducing nightmares with Burger King
  • The ethics of dream hacking for advertising

In a 1999 episode of Matt Groening’s animated science-fiction sitcom Futurama, the protagonist Fry is horrified to find that, in the year 3000, advertisements even appear in people’s dreams. When asked if they had ads in the late 20th Century, he replies “only on TV and radio… and in magazines and movies and at ball games… on buses and milk cartons and T-shirts and bananas and written on the sky. But not in dreams, no sir-ee!” Almost 25 years after the release of this episode, ads have only become more prevalent, especially with the increasing popularity of the internet and the advent of social media and apps. It is estimated that today, the average American is exposed to between 4,000 and 10,000 advertisements daily. What’s more, what was presented by Groening’s show as a humorous satire on consumerism is becoming a reality – many centuries before the future in which the show is set. ‘Dream incubation’ methods and technologies are being developed, and marketers are showing great interest in using these for commercial purposes.

The development of Targeted Dream Incubation

Professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, Robert Stickgold, describes how, in the last two decades, brain activity technology has advanced to the point where we can now analyse and understand dreams to a much greater extent. In 2000, Stickgold and his team carried out a study on dreams with the aim of inducing what researchers call ‘Targeted Dream Incubation’ (or TDI). Subjects were instructed to play the video game Tetris extensively for three days, and 60 per cent reported the game then being featured in their dreams. In fact, even some subjects who completely forgot that they had played the game still dreamt about it. This happens because of associations (for example, combinations of visuals and sounds or scents) formed while awake. When subjects drifted into what scientists call ‘hypnagogia’ – or the state between being awake and asleep – researchers introduced a sound or scent that the subjects had come to associate with the video game.  

“All night long, your brain is reprocessing memories from the previous day, connecting them with other memories, sifting through the residue to decide which ones to keep, and stabilizing them… Our dreams are literally creating who we are.”

Robert Stickgold, professor of psychiatry, Harvard Medical School

Since Stickgold’s study, dream incubation has advanced significantly, with a team from MIT even developing the Dormio device that optimises the process. Dormio is a glove equipped with sensors. It detects when the wearer has entered hypnagogia, at which moment it plays an audio cue. For example, when Dormio played a recording of the word ‘tree’, 67 per cent of wearers reported dreaming about trees. The team behind Dormio believes that the device could be used to induce inspiration for people in creative fields such as writing, art, and music.

Dream incubation for marketing

Corporations are also becoming increasingly interested in Targeted Dream Incubation for marketing and advertising purposes. For example, the Molson Coors Beverage Company (of Coors Light fame) carried out an experiment in which 18 subjects viewed a video of natural imagery combined with brief glimpses of Coors Light cans and a soundtrack. The soundtrack from the video was then played as the subjects fell asleep. While this experiment wasn’t quite as effective as Harvard’s or MIT’s, almost one-third of the participants reported dreaming about Coors products. The potential of TDI to increase awareness – and therefore sales – of products makes it an attractive concept to marketers, with a survey by the American Marketing Association-New York revealing that over three-quarters of marketers plan to use TDI technology in the next three years. Many companies are developing what are known as ‘Brain Computer Interfaces’ (or BCIs). These devices facilitate direct communication between the human brain and external devices, and examples include thought-to-text technology that enables users to type on screens with only their thoughts. Elon Musk’s company Neuralink is investing in BCI technology that may one day integrate with AI or even enable users to record and download memories.

Our dreams already frequently feature brands, which is not surprising considering how many ads we are exposed to and products we use every day. A survey by luxury beds manufacturer Plush Beds found that 42 per cent of people reported dreaming about Apple products, 33 per cent about Nike, and 32 per cent about Amazon. The potential for companies to further facilitate this is notable too – smart devices such as Apple’s iPhone and Watch and Google’s Fitbit and Nest Hub have functionalities aimed at improving sleep. The possibility of similar devices one day influencing dreams – whether openly or secretly – is not difficult to imagine.

Inducing nightmares with Burger King

Not all dream incubation attempts aim to induce positive experiences, and neither do all use advanced technologies. In 2018, fast food chain Burger King released a sandwich “clinically proven to induce nightmares” as a Halloween product. ‘The Nightmare King’ was a quarter-pound beef burger with a chicken fillet, melted cheese, bacon, onions, and mayonnaise, all on a bright green sesame seed bun. Working alongside neurological diagnostics laboratory Florida Sleep & Neuro Diagnostic Services, the company carried out a study analysing 100 participants’ dreams over 10 nights after eating the sandwich. This experiment resulted in a 3.5 time increase in nightmares, which the study’s lead doctor Dr Jose Gariel Medina attributed to the combination of cheese and protein. One participant reported that “someone in my dream turned into the burger. The burger then transformed into the figure of a snake.” While The Nightmare King rollout appears to have been a simple publicity stunt, the ability of food manufacturers to make people dream about their products is something that is likely to be further explored.

The ethics of dream hacking for advertising

Unsurprisingly, the use of TDI and BCI technologies for advertising purposes has raised ethical concerns. Stickgold, a key figure in the development of TDI, believes 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.” Adam Haar, of the MIT team behind Dormio, agrees. There are concerns that data obtained from BCIs could be used to detect emotions such as anxiety or sadness and target advertisements for products or services aimed at soothing these – including alcohol, pharmaceuticals, and gambling. Stickgold and Haar propose more benevolent aims for these technologies, such as “nightmare treatments, learning enhancements, overnight therapy, augmentation of creativity, and overcoming addiction”. They believe that ethical principles, such as minimising the impact on sleep quality and refusing to ‘hack’ dreams without consent, are crucial. 

In 2021, a group of scientists including Robert Stickgold, Adam Haar, and almost 40 others signed an open letter warning of the dangers of dreams becoming “a playground for corporate advertisers.” In Stickgold’s words, “when you’re awake, you have a whole collection of filters and mechanisms to evaluate information and filter out ads… Your sleeping brain can’t do that. It assumes that whatever is activated during sleep is being activated internally, not by outside forces.” Kathleen Esfahany, a researcher on Haar’s team at MIT, expressed concern that “addictions and other problems that exist in the real world could just be worsened” by the use of TDI in advertising. Sara Mednick, professor of cognitive science at UC Irvine, noted the privacy implications: “our dreams are our last sacred space. We’re super vulnerable during our sleep and we may not even know we’re being exposed to these techniques.” An article written by Stickgold, Haar, and sleep and dream researcher Antonio Zadra, expressed further concerns about the ethics of dream hacking:

“As scientists, we study sleep and dreams for a variety of reasons, including to understand sleep-dependent memory processing and emotion regulation; to study how dreaming impacts prior learning; to better understand and treat dream-related symptoms such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) nightmares; and as a source of clues about psychological wellbeing. Similarly, researchers working on TDI and in the broader field of dream engineering aim to understand how the brain gives rise to dream experiences across different stages of sleep, and to improve people’s sleep quality, stimulate creativity and facilitate sleep-related learning. While these are all laudable goals, we are highly concerned by the current efforts to exploit people’s sleep and dreams, as highlighted by Molson Coors’s attempt to use TDI to sell an addictive substance.” 

Robert Stickgold, Adam Haar, and Antonio Zadra

However, some scientists believe that these concerns are out of proportion. Director of the Université de Montréal’s Dream and Nightmare Lab Tore Nielsen doesn’t believe that “it is very realistic at all for advertisers to manipulate our dream content – especially not against someone’s will… New tech is showing some signs of progress, but we are nowhere near having a ‘problem’ with ‘unconscious mind control’, in my opinion.” Journalist Shoshana Wodinsky questions the usefulness of dream hacking for advertisers: “you can’t track whether someone clicked on a dream ad or signed up for a dream email service, or even if they actually comprehended what the hell they were looking at in the first place. Dreaming about beer and waking up to smash that buy button on a 6-pack are two very different things.” There are also existing regulations that prohibit “unfair or deceptive acts” in advertising, which would most likely cover dream hacking. However, regulations can change over time, and often struggle to keep up with emerging technologies.

Closing thoughts

Will we see advertising in our dreams one day? It is certainly possible, although it is difficult to calculate the likelihood and the extent. Advertising is already ubiquitous, and it is already important to ask ourselves what role it should play in our lives, now and in the future. Technology continues to advance regardless of ethical concerns, which makes it vital that we decide – as a society – how it should be used. Are technologies such as TDI and BCI best suited for increasing profits, or should they be used to improve public wellbeing? Are these applications mutually exclusive? Even if the ethical concerns are out of proportion, we will need to answer these questions sooner or later.

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