In-Depth: Scientists warn of a new type of advertising: manipulating your dreams

Posted at 6:10 PM, Jun 16, 2021

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) -- A group of sleep scientists from 11 countries is warning about an emerging type of advertising in which companies try to manipulate your dreams.

Coors Light, Microsoft, Sony and Burger King have experimented with ways to engineer content into people's dreams in recent years, prompting nearly 40 scientists to write an open letter this month calling for increased government oversight.

In a video released in February, Coors Light collaborated with a Harvard researcher to implant an ad in the dreams of willing participants. The experiment was more of a Super Bowl publicity stunt than a rigorous study -- Coors said some of the participants were paid actors -- but researchers say the underlying science is very real.

“There is a lot to be concerned about,” said Dr. Sara Mednick, a sleep researcher at University of California, Irvine who signed on to the open letter.

“There are several studies that show that we can get in there while someone's sleeping and, completely unbeknownst to the person, bias whatever processing is going on,” she said. “It’s a great space to manipulate thought.”

The technique is called dream incubation. For thousands of years, humans have explored ways to influence their dreams, but recently scientists have developed tools to accurately measure when someone enters deep sleep and alter their dream content.

“We're more vulnerable to be influenced during dream time than when we are waking,” she said.

During sleep, our brain decides which memories to save and which to discard. Researchers have learned they can influence that process in several ways, including by introducing sounds, smells or flashing lights at key moments in the sleep cycle.

“Not only is sleep processing our memories, turning them into long-term memories, but sleep is also an open period where you can get in there and actually manipulate what is getting remembered,” Dr. Mednick said.

The techniques can be used for therapeutic purposes. One study found dream incubation techniques made smokers use fewer cigarettes for up to a week.

Dream incubation can also help treat phobias and PTSD, Mednick said.

But research suggests dreams are fertile ground for advertising. A 2019 study in Iran found people who dreamed about an ad were 27 percent more likely to report planning to buy the product.

So far, advertisers like Coors have only used dream incubation on willing subjects. But Dr. Mednick and other sleep scientists worry it could soon be used on people without their knowledge because forty million Americans now have smart speakers in their bedrooms.

“The Nest system knows when you're sleeping,” Mednick said. “It's controlling your speakers. It’s controlling the temperature in the room. It’s controlling the kind of information that could come into your brain.”

At least that’s the worry. The Federal Trade Commission has rules against subliminal ads when people are awake, but in the open letter, the scientists say the rules may not apply when people are asleep.

“There's no jurisdiction over sleep,” said Mednick. “It's a Wild West right now.”

She and others are asking regulators to update their rules now, before our dreams become digital billboards.