Will Spons-Con Dreams Lead to a Dystopian Advertising Nightmare?
In late January, Coors launched what may have easily been the most dystopian commercial of an already dystopian year, attempting to poise our dreams as the terrifying final frontier of corporate marketing platforms.
As according to the advertisement, the NFL's exclusivity contract with Anheuser-Busch blocked the Molson Coors Beverage Company from running a Super Bowl commercial, the organization decided to take an alternate route in pushing their products, attempting to peddle their beer via dreams. Looking to turn your REM cycle into an advertisement for a certifiably mediocre brew? All you have to do is watch a Coors clip before bed and play a “soundscape” as you sleep, a regimen the company says may lead to “refreshing dreams.”
However, it seems this initiative sparked more than a few people reportedly spending their shut-eye imagining the okay taste of Coors, instigating a rift within the scientific community over the dangers of sleep-based advertisements.
According to Bob Stickgold, a sleep researcher and psychiatry professor at Harvard University's medical school, the implications of Coors' new campaign may do more than subconsciously convince you to buy shitty beer, opening the door to “weaponizing” a basic biological function.
“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,” Stickgold told The Guardian, noting that other companies could replicate these sleep-infiltrating advertising tactics. “Anything you could imagine an advertising campaign for, at all, could arguably be enhanced by weaponizing sleep."
In an attempt to counter this danger, Stickgold alongside dozens of researchers, professors, and other sleep experts from around the globe signed a letter last month detailing how these promotions are not merely a “fun gimmick," rather “a slippery slope with real consequences," obtaining a potential for abuse that is ”as ominous as it is obvious.”
“Our dreams cannot become just another playground for corporate advertisers. Regardless of Coors’ intent, their actions set the stage for a corporate assault of our very sense of who we are. And it is not difficult to imagine Coors' ad campaign negatively impacting abstinent alcoholics," the letter reads. “We believe that proactive action and new protective policies are urgently needed to keep advertisers from manipulating one of the last refuges of our already beleaguered conscious and unconscious minds: Our dreams.”
While as The Guardian noted, various types of dream-infiltrating techniques have existed for millennia, with abstract artist Salvador Dali using similar tactics to help spark his creativity, technology and the prevalence of devices like Amazon's Alexa has experts particularly concerned about the potential for companies to implement these advertising tactics on a broader scale and perhaps without consumer consent.
“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,” Stickgold elaborated. “You could have this sort of 1984 situation where advertisers buy advertising time on these devices, and nobody ever knows they’re hearing them."
While this all sounds like the plot of a Black Mirror episode, not everyone is too concerned over the impending threat of sleep-based advertising technology, namely Dr. Deirdre Barrett, the psychologist and Harvard professor who Coors tapped to appear in the advertisement. In a post shared to her Medium page discussing this blowback, Barrett, who noted that many of her “colleagues doing clinical work with dreams” tended to have “positive” feedback on the commercial, says that while she can understand the experts' concerns as outlined in their letter, she questions the feasibility of a dystopian, spons-con REM-filled future.
“I completely agree with the passionately expressed core premise of that letter: the absolute ethical unacceptability of ‘passive, unconscious overnight advertising, with or without our permission’ that the letter predicts will follow these few dream-linked advertisements," Barrett explained. “However, I believe the call for ‘new protective policies [that] are urgently needed’ reflects a lack of familiarity with current statutes barring deceptive advertising," she continued, noting that at a bare minimum, "any attempt to play ads designed for sleepers would have to feature anti-deception statements for every advertisement that was going to play that night."
One dream-based advertisement included in the letter that she says particularly exemplifies the absurdity of these claims? A 2018 Burger King initiative featuring a green burger that could supposedly induce nightmares. “The letter says dream advertising is not ‘some fun gimmick’ but I don’t find that a completely inappropriate term for the ads it references: a green bun ‘nightmare burger’ at Halloween or a dream stimulus film of beautiful mountains, a talking fish and anthropomorphic dancing beer cans,” she continued, equating the fast-food campaign to the Coors commercial.
So, folks, here's the hoping Barrett is right – the last thing we need in these trying times is sponsored sleep.