Dream hacking: Scientists warn that marketers are trying to inject ads into dreams

[If presence is an illusion of nonmediation, an overlooking of at least some of the roles of technology in an experience, the presentation of targeted stimuli during sleep to alter our dreams and subsequent memories and behavior without our conscious awareness represents a vivid example of presence with both positive and disturbing implications. This story from Futurism provides an overview of the possibilities and the extended excerpt from an article in Aeon by three experts in the area provides more details and examples. –Matthew]

[Image: Credit: By Getty / Futurism]

Scientists Warn That Marketers Are Trying to Inject Ads Into Dreams

Should advertisers be allowed to hack your dreams?

By Abby Lee Hood
November 21, 2021

Researchers and sleep experts are ringing alarm bells about a nascent marketing tactic: injecting advertisements into your dreams.

A trio of researchers at Harvard, MIT and the University of Montreal published an essay on dream hacking in Aeon warning that, according to a recent survey, 77 percent of marketers plan to use dreamtech advertising in the next three years.

“Multiple marketing studies are openly testing new ways to alter and drive purchasing behavior through sleep and dream hacking,” the team writes. “The commercial, for-profit use of dream incubation — the presentation of stimuli before or during sleep to affect dream content — is rapidly becoming a reality.”

Two of the essay’s authors previously worked on an MIT device designed to communicate with sleeping subjects and even “hack” their dreams, lending them credibility on the topic.

Of particular concern, they wrote, was an ad campaign by Molson Coors before this year’s Super Bowl, which promised free beer in exchange for participation in a “dream incubation” study involving a video with dancing beer cans and talking fish and pop star Zayn Malik. Interesting, the scientists pointed out, Coors used the phrase “targeted dream incubation,” a term coined by two of the three in a 2020 paper, meaning that advertisers are indeed keeping an eye on academic work on dream hacking.

All three penned an open letter earlier this year that slammed advertisers trying to hack dreams. Forty other scientists signed the document. The writers also argued that the Federal Trade Commission, which regulates advertising in the US, should update rules against subliminal messages in advertising to ban dream hacking.

It’s important to act before it’s too late, the authors say, because while dream incubation has practical uses — treating PTSD, for one — it’s only a matter of time before tech companies that make watches, wearables, apps and other technology that monitor our sleep start to sell that data for profit, or use those tools to hack our dreams while we slumber.

Worst of all, you probably won’t even remember it. The researchers referenced a study that found mixing bad smells with cigarette smoke while daily smokers slept reduced their smoking the next day — but they couldn’t remember smelling anything.

All told, it’s a provocative warning — and a call to regulate the tech before it matures.

“The Coors dream advertisement was not merely a gimmicky marketing campaign; it was a signal that what was once the stuff of science fiction might quickly become our reality,” the researchers wrote in Aeon. “We now find ourselves on a very slippery slope. Where we slide to, and at what speed, depends on what actions we choose to take in order to protect our dreams.”

[Here are the last several paragraphs of the article in Aeon described above]

Inside your dreamscape

Dream-hacking techniques can help us create, heal and have fun. They could also become tools of commercial manipulation.


19 November 2021


The use of our dreamscape as advertising space is essentially what people feared subliminal marketing might be. Stimuli delivered during sleep can influence people without their being able to assess those stimuli. And it is far easier to deliver such information during sleep than during the milliseconds-long windows that subliminal stimuli must fit into. It’s very likely that advertising in dreams would change behaviour, even in unknowing listeners and those who remember only some of their dreams.

Admittedly, this is a nascent field of study, but there is already reason to think that such interventions, even if briefly administered during a single night of sleep, could impact people’s waking behaviour. As an example, a recent study of adult smokers showed that delivering targeted smells – a combination of rotten eggs or fish and cigarette smoke – during participants’ sleep resulted in a 30 per cent reduction in their smoking over the following week. Most of these participants reported having no memory whatsoever of the intervention. Further underscoring the remarkable effect of this kind of associative learning administered during sleep is the fact that, when researchers presented the same smells to a second group while they were fully awake, the smells had no impact on their subsequent smoking.

This kind of research not only highlights the powerful (yet often underappreciated) nature of the many processes carried out by our brain while we sleep, but also reveals how the mind is both suggestible while we sleep and amnesic for what occurs. Another example is the recent paper demonstrating that playing audio recordings of product names during sleep, but not during wakefulness, could shift snack preferences toward either M&Ms or Skittles. The researchers concluded that: ‘sleep likely represents a unique period during which preferences and choices that are otherwise stable can be selectively modified by external cues.’ And if scientists believe this, tech companies can’t be too far behind.

Tech giants such as Amazon, Apple and Google have all developed smart devices designed to monitor people’s sleep (eg, Amazon’s upcoming radar sensor, Apple’s iPhone and Apple Watch, Google’s Fitbit and Nest Hub). While these technologies and the data they collect are ostensibly geared to improve people’s sleep, it is not hard to envision a world in which our phones and smart speakers – now widely present in people’s bedrooms – become instruments of overnight advertising, or data collection, with or without our knowledge.

Even if we willingly give permission for the collection of our sleep data, it could be difficult to fully understand what will be done with it. Imagine this data being sold to corporations selling sleep aids, so that, after a particularly restless night, the ads that appear during your internet searches are for Benadryl, Ambien or Tylenol PM, even though you might not remember how poorly you slept. Since sleep loss is known to increase risk-taking behaviour, one might expect to be hit with targeted ads for online gambling. As there is evidence linking sleep loss to sugar intake as well, ads for candy might pop up. Going further, and taking a cue from the research on changing candy preferences during naps, one can easily imagine a musician collaborating with the manufacturer of Skittles to offer an hour-long nap soundtrack that incubates psychedelic candy dreams. Consumers could get half-off on candy just for listening to a relaxing nap soundtrack, and there might be no legal requirement for clear informed consent about how the incubation could drive purchasing behaviour.

Candy in hand, perhaps you would want to watch a show while you snack. A promotion with Netflix could mean your subscription comes with dream-incubation stimuli as well, enabling dreams related to a new show after you binge-watch until bedtime, all while measures of sleep quality – including changes in your breathing and heart rate during dreams – tell advertisers whether these stimuli were well received and how to target and tailor future advertisements.

This would almost certainly not be what you thought you were agreeing to when you gave your consent for the recording of your sleep.

To be clear, we don’t think that sleep and dream science is sufficiently advanced at this point to reliably use TDI to influence consumer behaviour at scale. But this won’t stop companies from using what is already known to explore new marketing techniques and to set the stage so that, when the needed science is there, they’ll be ready. Ultimately, the key question at hand isn’t necessarily whether or not dream advertising can influence people’s behaviour (it can) or if large-scale sleep-related advertising is cost-effective (still unclear), but rather if we, as individuals and as a society, think powerful marketers and companies should even be allowed to collect massive datasets on the workings of our brains during sleep, let alone to exploit or manipulate them. If our online activities and internet fingerprints have taught us anything, it is that, once collected, such data can be leaked, traded and used for profiling, selective targeting, manipulation and commercialisation without our knowledge.

Drawing lines between potentially beneficial and harmful uses of emerging sleep- and dream-related technologies is not a simple matter. Many people would be interested in immersive tools designed to facilitate flying dreams or to induce lucid dreaming (knowing that you are dreaming while still in the dream). Some of us would endorse dreams of Batman or Superwoman for our children (or even for ourselves!) just for fun, and some would embrace dreams of walking through cities in Spain or Chile to enhance language learning, and perhaps even to incentivise tourism. Others might support dream engineering aimed at helping people to confront their fears or to become better athletes or artists. And, as we saw above, these technologies could potentially also be used to foster creativity, alleviate nightmares, help treat sufferers of PTSD, or alter harmful behaviours such as cigarette smoking.

There is no lack of grey areas that people will want to explore. Our responsibility is to create dialogue and map out these spaces before these scenarios become a fait accompli. Steps in this direction have already been taken. For starters, a group of more than 40 sleep and dream researchers from the scientific community recently co-signed a document rejecting dream advertising campaigns such as the one run by Molson Coors, while others have drafted a Dream Engineering Ethic to foster discussions on the implications of this emerging field of research and the ethical considerations that should guide this work moving forward. One of the clear policy questions is whether the Federal Trade Commission will release an enforcement policy statement that explicitly declares advertising that targets dreams without informed consent as deceitful, as they have done regarding subliminal advertising practices.

Over the past decade, we have entered a new and exciting era in our understanding of the myriad complex functions executed by the brain during various stages of sleep, including those closely associated with dreams. While these scientific developments carry great promise, they also reveal the many ways this knowledge and technology can be abused. The Coors dream advertisement was not merely a gimmicky marketing campaign; it was a signal that what was once the stuff of science fiction might quickly become our reality. We now find ourselves on a very slippery slope. Where we slide to, and at what speed, depends on what actions we choose to take in order to protect our dreams.

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