Coors drinks on a beach

I never thought I’d live to see the day when beverage companies are infiltrating dreams. But here we are.

Brewing giant Coors launched a new advertising campaign earlier this year, the format came as a surprise to many. The company was planning to infiltrate people’s dreams to get them to buy, and presumably drink Coors beer.

They started by getting people to watch a short online video before bed, then played a creepy eight-hour “soundscape” through the night.

Coors said that if this dystopian experiment was successful, it would trigger “refreshing dreams of Coors”. The experiment was conducted in partnership with Dr. Deirdre Barrett, a leading psychologist, author and expert on dreams.

She said: “I’ve studied dreams and methods to influence them throughout my career, but working with the artists of the Coors Dream Project was a novel opportunity to craft audio and visual stimuli that viewers could use to trigger specific dream content.

“We saw the results come to life in the Dream Lab trial run when participants reported similar dream experiences including refreshing streams, mountains, waterfalls and even Coors itself.”

Dream incubation uses techniques and frequencies while a person is awake to influence them during their sleep.

However, other psychologists expressed concern that these techniques could potentially be abused by other advertising companies and organizations.

Bob Stickgold, a cognitive neuroscientist and professor of psychiatry at Harvard medical school, said: “They’re trying to push an addictive drug on people who are naive to what’s being done to them. I don’t know if it can get much worse than that.

“Anything you could imagine an advertising campaign for, at all, could arguably be enhanced by weaponizing sleep.”

Stickgold is one of 35 sleep and dream researchers who have signed an open letter calling for a ban on Targeted Dream Incubation (TDI) in advertising.

A 2014 study found that smokers exposed to the smell of cigarettes and rotten eggs while they slept smoked 30% fewer cigarettes during the following week, while Stickgold said other work had shown that racial bias can be reduced by targeted dream incubation.

While much of the research so far has been aimed at positive results, scientists fear the threat of dream advertising is real, and in an increasingly wired world it is not likely to be limited to willing participation.

“Something like 30 million people have these listening, Alexa-type devices in their bedroom. And those devices can play anything they want whenever they want and advertisers could buy advertising time, [for adverts] they want played at 2.30 in the morning. You could have this sort of 1984 situation where advertisers buy advertising time on these devices, and nobody ever knows they’re hearing them.”

It wouldn’t be an entirely straightforward process. To sell a project involuntarily through dreams, the potential advertising campaign would have to be linked to adverts people see while they are awake.

Stickgold said it could potentially be done by playing a certain sound every time a product – a Coors beer, or a Corrs album, for example – is seen during a television or YouTube advert.

Replaying that sound while someone is sleeping, potentially through a home device, would, in theory, then trigger dreams about how nice it would be to drink a beer, or listen to an Irish guitar and violin-driven musical ensemble.

Perhaps the most alarming aspect of dream incubation, is its potential. If random beer companies are already trying to sneakl into your dreams, what about governments? Pharmaceutical companies? The military? 

We often think of dreams as the last sacred space that is free from the daily bombardment of adverts and sales pitches. The day when corporations and other shadowy organizations start screwing with your dreams is the day when full control over our thoughts and dreams starts to wane. 

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