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Advertisers Are Hijacking Your Dreams, Scientists Say

  • Advertisers could be reaching you while you sleep, evidence shows.
  • A group of sleep researchers is calling for regulation of these so-called “sleep ads” to minimize any potential harmful impacts.
  • Dream implantation works by playing sounds or using smells to “prime” your brain.

    The next frontier for advertising isn’t virtual reality or holograms—it’s your dreams, according to a group of dozens of sleep researchers. And the practice, they warn, could soon become a nightmare.

    In an open letter published on the op-ed website DXE, the scientists decry the concept of dream advertising, wherein companies engineer ads into your subconscious through audio and video clips. Not only does the practice already exist, they say in the letter, but a beer company has even publicly tested it out in the lead-up to Super Bowl LV earlier this year.

    You like weird science. So do we. Let’s nerd out over it together.

    The sleep researchers cite a truly strange February 4 press release as one example. In it, Molson Coors Beverage Company—which owns brands like Coors Light, Miller Lite, and Blue Moon—openly admitted it could manipulate your dreams so you and many others can collectively see visions of alcoholic beverages dancing through your head:

    It’s no surprise the stress of the pandemic has caused many of us to have difficulties sleeping and, in turn, experience weird, bizarre dreams called ‘quarandreams.’ Typically we can’t control what we dream about, but what if we could? Coors Light and Coors Seltzer want to ensure you’ll have a refreshing dream using the science of guiding dreams.

    In their letter, the sleep scientists express concern about this sort of intrusive dream advertising. What’s lying beneath the marketing speak about better dreams? Is it better to have a naturally occurring stress dream or a “fun” dream that a company just so happened to plant in your head as an advertisement?

    If you visit CoorsBigGameDream.com, watch the dream-inducing film three times, play the soundscape, and go to sleep, you should dream of waterfalls, mountains, and … Coors.

    Molson Coors Beverage Company

    “As sleep and dream researchers, we are deeply concerned about marketing plans aimed at generating profits at the cost of interfering with our natural nocturnal memory processing,” they say. Three researchers from MIT and Harvard wrote the letter, and dozens more sleep researchers from around the world signed it.

    Targeted dream implantation (TDI) has a history that dates back millennia, especially among groups who valued dreams for spiritual practices, according to the sleep researchers. In recent decades, scientists have completed experiments that demonstrate the real ways in which dreams can affect our waking lives, too. Therefore, implanting dreams can change real-world outcomes.

    So, how exactly do marketers slither into our dreams? They can work with scientists to introduce sounds and pipe in smells that will shape what people dream about. Some of the research into TDI involves turning people off to addictive things like cigarettes. In their letter, the sleep researchers say people smoked 30 percent fewer cigarettes after “dreaming of” the smell of cigarettes and rotten eggs, for example.

    In another example, scientists asked dreaming people a series of questions. The study participants answered questions including simple mathematics by moving their eyes back and forth from inside of their lucid dreams.

    Molson Coors, meanwhile, collaborated with Deirdre Barrett, Ph.D., a part-time assistant professor of psychology at Harvard University’s Department of Psychiatry. Per the press release, “Barrett worked with the Coors team to develop a stimulus film that, when paired with a curated eight-hour soundscape, induces relaxing, refreshing images including waterfalls, mountains, and of course, Coors.”

    It’s easy to see where the researchers’ concerns stem from as this scientific power makes its way to advertisers—especially when the advertiser is a beer company, offering a product with the potential to be habit-forming for consumers.

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    “Researchers have not yet tested whether TDI can instead worsen addiction, but the Coors study, which paired images of beer cans not with odious smells but with images of clean mountain streams, may shine a disturbing light on this question,” the scientists say.

    For her part, Barrett has since walked back her involvement with Molson Coors after it used overly scientific language she did not approve in the press release, according to a report in Science. And one of the op-ed letter’s authors—MIT’s Adam Haas—”has been contacted by three companies in the past two years, including Microsoft and two airlines, asking for his help on dream incubation projects,” which helped drive him to coauthor the letter in the first place.

    If you’re still curious about what this advertising tactic looks like in practice, you can check it out at CoorsBigGameDream.com. Just don’t blame us if you wake up with a hankering for a cold one.


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