Child sleeping in bed.

Branding Dreams

By Dustin Marlan

Advertisers are trying to market to us while we dream. This is not the science fiction of the film Inception or the series Black Mirror, but instead a troubling — and potentially illegal — new reality. To begin, consider three recent examples of dream advertising:

  1. Molson Coors ran an experiment in connection with its 2021 Super Bowl advertising campaign. In a downtown Los Angeles building, 18 in-person participants, along with thousands of social media users who participated remotely in exchange for free beer, were instructed to watch a dream “stimulus film that when paired with a curated eight-hour soundscape, induces relaxing, refreshing images including waterfalls, mountains, and of course, Coors.” About 30% of the in-person participants reported that their dreams were influenced by the dream advertisement.
  2. For the 2020 launch of its Xbox Series X video game console, Microsoft partnered with dream scientists and the McCann Worldgroup marketing agency to create “Made From Dreams.” The project involved participants (professional gamers) who were using the video game console for the first time before going to sleep. When the participants entered hypnagogia — the semi-lucid period between wake and sleep — marketing researchers used a dream recording technology to induce participants to lucid dream about their Xbox video gaming experiences.
  3. For its 2018 Halloween promotion, Burger King introduced a hamburger called the “Nightmare King.” Featuring fried chicken, beef, bacon, cheese and a green bun, Burger King claimed that the burger was “clinically proven to induce nightmares” in those who ate it. To prove it, Burger King partnered with a sleep lab to run a clinical trial with 100 participants. After eating the Nightmare King and going to sleep, results indicated that participants’ nightmares increased by 3.5 times, which Burger King attributed to the “unique combination of proteins and cheese.”

These nascent examples of dream advertising are based on a practice called dream incubation — “techniques employed during wakefulness to help a person dream about a specific topic.” As an Indigenous practice, dream incubation has been utilized by myriad cultures for thousands of years for spiritual, creative, and practical purposes.

Recently, science has produced a more precise and measurable form of dream incubation referred to as “Targeted Dream Incubation” (TDI). TDI is a dream engineering technology that acts as a method for guiding dreams toward certain themes and ideas by taking advantage of the hypnagogic (sleep onset) period. Roughly, TDI works by (1) creating a certain mental association during waking life (e.g., a pairing of video clips, audio tracks, or scents); and (2) then, as the subject is drifting off to sleep, the association is again introduced in hopes of triggering related dreams.

TDI has been found by sleep and dream experts to have various potential benefits, such as improving sleep quality, stimulating creativity, and treating addiction. When TDI is hijacked by advertisers for commercial purposes, however, serious bioethical issues emerge. These harms are most obvious when dream marketing is done in connection with addictive products — such as alcohol, video games, or fast food. But privacy, cognitive liberty, appropriation of traditional knowledge, and spiritual concerns exist more broadly, and dream advertising may interfere with the natural sleep cycle.

I will discuss these harms in a forthcoming law review article titled The Nightmare of Dream Advertising. And dozens of sleep and dream researchers have signed an open letter in protest of dream advertising, lest “dreams become just another playground for corporate advertisers.” The open letter, written by leading sleep and dream experts Robert Stickgold, Antonio Zadra, and Adam Haar, calls for “new protective policies” around dream advertising.

Such policies, the researchers believe, “are urgently needed to keep advertisers from manipulating one of the last refuges of our already beleaguered conscious and unconscious minds: Our dreams.” Extending advertising to the dreamscape, the researchers argue, “set[s] the stage for a corporate assault of our very sense of who we are.” Indeed, it has been estimated that U.S. citizens encounter over 4,000 advertisements each waking day. And according to a 2021 American Marketing Association survey, a shocking 77% of 400 companies surveyed plan to experiment with dream advertising by 2025.

The act of dream marketing represents a surreal form of surveillance capitalism and an unprecedented colonization of the unconscious mind. While the previous examples of dream advertising are of dubious efficacy and require active participation on the part of research subjects, in the future it is not hard to “envision a world in which smart speakers — 40 million Americans currently have them in their bedrooms — become instruments of passive, unconscious overnight advertising, with or without our permission.”

Thus, specific regulations or prohibitions on dream advertising would be welcome and helpful. However, the practice of branding dreams might already be illegal under existing subliminal, deceptive, and false advertising laws.

Given that it targets the unconscious mind, dream advertising should be considered a form of subliminal advertising. For instance, consider the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) broad definition of subliminal messaging: “Any technique whereby an attempt is made to convey information to the viewer by transmitting messages below the threshold of normal awareness.”

Subliminal advertising is banned in several countries, including the United Kingdom and Australia. In the U.S., particularly if dream marketing is subliminal advertising, it is ripe for enforcement by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) as a “deceptive” advertising practice under Sections 5 and 12 of the FTC Act. Section 5 states: “Unfair methods of competition in or affecting commerce, and unfair or deceptive acts or practices affecting commerce, are declared unlawful.” And Section 12 specifically prohibits false advertisements likely to induce the purchase of food, drugs, devices or cosmetics.

In fact, the FTC has noted in its Advertising FAQ’s: A Guide for Small Businesses: “It would be deceptive for marketers to embed ads with so-called subliminal messages that could affect consumer behavior. However, most consumer behavior experts have concluded that such methods aren’t effective.”

Until now, perhaps…

Dustin Marlan

Dustin Marlan is Assistant Professor of Law at the University of North Carolina School of Law. He is also a Project Affiliated Researcher for the Project on Psychedelics Law and Regulation (POPLAR) at the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School.

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