A reflection on the letter, “Advertising in Dreams is Coming: Now What?”

Enter REM sleep. Art by Deirdre Barrett.

Last fall, I got an unusual email: an advertising agency asking if I would be interested in consulting on an ad for Coors beer — one that would focus on dreaming. I’ve made a career of studying dreams, and much of that has involved the process of dream incubation: coaching people on pre-sleep self-suggestions to influence their dream toward chosen topics. The Coors project was a novel chance to introduce a larger audience to the concept of dream incubation, so I agreed. I gave them advice — some followed, some not — and the ad was released this February.

Reactions from colleagues doing clinical work with dreams have tended to be positive — they liked the psycho-educational component. However, some research colleagues wrote a letter expressing concerns that the Coors project and three other dream-related ads represent the beginning of a “slippery slope” leading toward deceptive attempts to force dreamers to involuntarily dream of commercial products against their will or without their knowledge. The journal Science is publishing a web article on the letter and asked me to what extent I agreed with concerns about dream-linked ads and what points I disagreed with. I prepared a response for them from which they will be quoting just a few brief points. I am publishing my full response here:

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].” I think that phrase might confuse anyone not already very 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 finding 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 psycho-education 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 juxtaposed my interview with footage from their 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 — telling them a larger trial which people did at home would be advisable 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 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. Nothing in what they produced struck me as at all deceptive. 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 was unsuccessful in persuading them to abandon those terms 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 film-maker, 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.

Dream researcher and author of The Committee of Sleep, Trauma and Dreams, and Pandemic Dreams.