No, Brands Can’t Target Ads At Your Dreams

No, Brands Can’t Target Ads At Your Dreams
Photo: Chris McGrath, Getty Images

Last week, a coalition of sleep researchers from across the globe put out an open letter warning of a down right Black Mirror-esque scenario: corporations dive-bombing our dreams with targeted ads.

The letter notes that this isn’t some wacky hypothetical, but a real form of advertising currently being “proudly pioneered” by corporations that are ignoring the very real consequences that could come from this kind of subliminal marketing.

“Our dreams cannot become just another playground for corporate advertisers,” the letter reads, urging the U.S. Federal Trade Commission to revisit its policies banning subliminal advertising to include ads that creep up in your sleep, too. “The potential for misuse of these technologies is as ominous as it is obvious.”

Or at least it would be, if these technologies were actually real.

First off, the claims that these scientists made stemmed from one specific marketing gimmick the Coors Light brand pulled in the run-up to the 2021 Super Bowl. A release Coors put out at the time describes how they worked with a sleep researcher from Harvard’s Medical School to curate a short film featuring “specific audio and visual stimuli,” that’s meant to, well, make you dream about Coors. If you watch the promotional video the company put out about the project, you can see some of this stimuli in action: think lush green fields, vaporwave-y water effects, and (naturally) cans of cold beer abound.

Coors recruited a set of volunteers willing to have the Coors team monitor them before and after they fell asleep. The plan was that these players would watch Coors’ curated videos as they drifted off and for a full eight hours afterwards — during which time the release promises Coors would “shape and compel” these sleepers’ subconscious minds. The idea was that when the volunteer woke up, then maybe — hopefully — they’d have a hankering for some sort of Coors beverage.

There actually is a shred of science to back up Coors’ methods here. Researchers are looking into “Targeted Dream Incubation” (TDI) — the technical name for guiding a person’s dreams to a topic of choice — as a potential treatment for PTSD and depression, for example. Last year, a team that studies TDI out of MIT put out the first-ever wearable meant to help curious (and sleepy) people “hack” their dreams using TDI.

And to Coors’ credit, the company did enlist Dr. Deirdre Barrett, a Harvard professor, internationally renowned dream expert, and frequent writer on the topic. About a month after the original scientist coalition released its open letter raising alarm bells over the impending ad-targeted doom that Coors was foisting on us all, Barrett put out a post of her own. In it, she broke down some of the choices Coors made when splicing the final ad together — and when wording the press release — to make the trials sound…well, like a harbinger of ad-targeted doom. But behind the scenes, nearly every participant watching these videos was an actor that was paid to take part in the study, and no data’s been released from the trials thus far, according to a Science Mag interview with Barrett.

In other words, this surveillance-y sleep study was a marketing ploy. And every one of these researchers fell for it.

“The terminology in [Coors’] 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,” Barrett wrote, adding that while she wasn’t successful at getting the Coors team to abandon that language, a team of researchers familiar with typical sleep-study terminology should have known better than to just put it in their letter.

Barrett also pointed out some basic points that the coalition’s letter either glossed over or got completely wrong. The ad didn’t run for nearly 100 million Super Bowl viewers. It ran on the Coors website, meaning you’d literally have to hunt it down to find it. The open letter describes the Coors ad as “designed to infiltrate” a person’s dream, but the only way approaches like TDI work is if the dreamer in question takes time to “focus their intent” on whatever visual they want to see while sleeping. The letter begs the FTC to update its policies before it’s too late, when Barrett points out the agency’s subliminal advertising statutes are so overly broad that “dystopian future fantasies” like these are already on its radar.

But still. These broad guidelines haven’t stopped a literal sea of tracking and data-brokering companies from doing exactly that. Companies can make bank off of any sort of data — even if it’s sensitive or stolen or easily abused — proving countless times that a few pesky data privacy laws won’t stop them. But when asked about the value of potentially tracking these same metrics from the depths of someone’s dreams, the ad-serving and data policy experts we asked all came back with pretty much the same response: “Is this a serious question,” followed by, “Oh. Uh, yeah. Zero dollars.”

Barrett pointed out in that Science interview that there’s barely any research indicating that sleep sounds (or sleep ads) have any sort of effect once a person actually wakes up. But even if you were able to hotwire a sleeping brain to recall every 30-second ad spot a person heard while dozing off, that wouldn’t really matter. One of these ad experts — former Mozilla strategist Don Marti — pointed out that the dozens of precise metrics that advertisers (and tech companies) use in order to do their creepy tracking just wouldn’t exist in dreamland. You can’t track whether someone clicked on a dream ad or signed up for a dream email service, or even if they actually comprehended what the hell they were looking at in the first place. Dreaming about beer and waking up to smash that buy button on a 6-pack are two very different things.