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Sweet Dreams

It hit me one afternoon as I walked into our local CVS drugstore to buy mouthwash. While the automatic doors were opening before me, my phone buzzed with a text message. It was from CVS, with a link to all their current sales and coupons. As I looked around the store, my epiphany struck. My devices may be monitoring my movements for health purposes, but information on every store I visit and every purchase I make is somewhere in the cloud, waiting to be exploited.

Marketing technology extends far beyond mere locational surveillance. Back when I was a youngster going to movie theaters, word leaked out that they were placing brief pictures of hot buttered popcorn and other temptations into the trailers to stimulate a subliminal desire to visit the snack bar. Fearful of Communist propaganda being broadcast in a similar manner, the Federal Communications Commission and members of Congress summoned market researcher James Vicary to put on a demonstration. No one was convinced it worked, and Vicary later admitted he had faked his data. Nevertheless, laws were passed to guard against such practices.

More recently, theaters are much less subtle, showing lengthy commercials for food before the trailers even begin. Product placements in the films themselves are yet another way that theaters manipulate us. Going to actual theaters is becoming quaint, but that hasn’t stopped advertisers from messing with our heads.

Super Bowl is one of the biggest advertising events of the year, and companies spend up to $10 million per minute to pitch their wares to over 100 million viewers. At these stakes, there are few limits to what advertisers will do to secure a return on their investment. Coors beer brewer Molson-Coors conducted what they euphemistically called a “dream study” on the night before Super Bowl LV. On advice from a Harvard psychologist, they designed dream incubation stimuli to associate images of Coors beer with positive imagery like refreshing alpine rivers. If you rushed out Sunday morning for last minute Super Bowl party supplies and came back with a cold case of Coors beer, now you know why.

Molson-Coors isn’t the only one trying to alter our behavior. A 2021 survey of 400 marketers by the American Marketing Association New York found that 77 percent of them were planning on deploying dream incubation technology over the next three years. This focus on the commercial exploitation of dreams might seem at first glance to be the latest trend, but the idea has been around for decades.

While psychiatrist Sigmund Freud was securing a place in history with his theories of dreams and the unconscious, his lesser-known nephew Edward Bernays focused on public influence through the creation of unconscious associations and desires. The connection between cars and masculinity, cigarettes and rugged individualism or alcohol and an active social life were engineered by Edward and his disciples when we had no idea what was happening.

Sleep has been accepted as a mysterious yet powerful interlude throughout history. When I was an undergraduate, my fellow students and I would often stay up late cramming the night before an exam. Although we might have justified this by saying that we were incubating freshman chemistry into our dreams, the truth is that we had procrastinated until the last possible moment. To the best of my knowledge, there is no good data on reasonable study habits to compare this with.

There is plenty of folklore around the belief that dreams enable creativity. Musicians, writers, and painters often say they wake up from a dream with fresh inspiration for their art. In Salvador Dali’s book 50 Secrets of Magic Craftsmanship (1948), the great Spanish surrealist documented his technique for falling asleep in a chair with a key in his hand suspended over a plate. He would drift off while thinking about a problem he was trying to solve, and when his hand relaxed the key would fall onto the plate and awaken him, often with the solution he was seeking.

We have come a long way since the key-and-plate contraption, and the tools of modern science have allowed us to explore the effects of external stimuli on brain waves and eye movements in fine detail. We know now that people are very vulnerable to suggestion when in certain stages of sleep, and we are getting better at detecting those stages by listening to the sounds of breathing and body movements. A well-timed proposal could influence our dreams and behaviors without us ever suspecting. A simple smart speaker could do the trick, and today over 40 million of us have one in our bedroom.

Sweet dreams.

Author Profile - Paul W. Smith - leader, educator, technologist, writer - has a lifelong interest in the countless ways that technology changes the course of our journey through life. In addition to being a regular contributor to NetworkDataPedia, he maintains the website Technology for the Journey and occasionally writes for Blogcritics. Paul has over 40 years of experience in research and advanced development for companies ranging from small startups to industry leaders. His other passion is teaching - he is a former Adjunct Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the Colorado School of Mines. Paul holds a doctorate in Applied Mechanics from the California Institute of Technology, as well as Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees in Mechanical Engineering from the University of California, Santa Barbara.



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