Digital Marketing estimates that Americans see anywhere from 4,000 to 10,000 ads every day, which frankly just seems like too many. But that’s not quite enough for advertisers, who are always experimenting with ways to get us to see even more ads. And now, experts warn, some may be getting close to a disturbing breakthrough: hacking our dreams while we sleep.
At least one advertiser has already made the attempt, albeit pretty crudely. Coors encouraged viewers to watch a short advertisement before bed and then play a custom “soundscape” while they slept. The company said this approach would trigger “refreshing dreams” of Coors which would, in their imagination, encourage dreamers to make the purchase after they woke up.
The Guardian is skeptical of this campaign’s success or popularity, but experts say it’s just the beginning. “Targeted dream incubation,” as they’re calling it, is a goal for many advertisers who see the dreamscape as high-value real estate for billboards, and there are plenty of ways they can start buying a chunk of it.
“They’re trying to push an addictive drug on people who are naive to what’s being done to them,” said cognitive neuroscientist and professor of psychiatry at Harvard medical school, according to the Guardian. “I don’t know if it can get much worse than that. Anything you could imagine an advertising campaign for, at all, could arguably be enhanced by weaponizing sleep.”
Stickgold points to devices like Alexa, which millions of us already have in our homes. “Those devices can play anything they want whenever they want and advertisers could buy advertising time, they want played at 2:30 in the morning,” Stickgold said, an example. “You could have this sort of 1984 situation where advertisers buy advertising time on these devices, and nobody ever knows they’re hearing them.”
There’s reason to believe such campaigns could be effective. In 2014, researchers found that smokers who had the smell of cigarette smoke and rotten eggs pumped into their bedrooms while they slept experienced a sharp drop in their urge to smoke while they were awake. Stickgold told the Guardian that ad agencies could use such a tactic by, say, playing a distinctive sound every time you see an ad for a product while you’re awake, and then replaying that sound while you’re asleep. Your mind would learn to associate soothing sounds with commercial products in your subconscious, making you more interested in making the purchase without you ever realizing it.
Sleep and dream researchers are urging for an advance tightening of advertising law to nip all this in the bud before it starts in earnest. Stickgold helped co-author an open letter warning against such tactics, writing that “TDI-advertising is not some fun gimmick, but a slippery slope with real consequences. The potential for misuse of these technologies is as ominous as it is obvious.”
“We believe that proactive action and new protective policies are urgently needed,” the letter continued. “To keep advertisers from manipulating one of the last refuges of our already beleaguered conscious and unconscious minds: our dreams.”