By Adam Haar Horowitz, Robert Stickgold, and Antonio Zadra
Advertisers have begun invading our sleep in an attempt to place their products in our dreams. This is neither metaphor nor fiction; it’s a fact. The night before Super Bowl LV, the beverage company Molson Coors ran what they called the ‘world’s largest dream study’. They explicitly aimed to place images of Coors beer, along with positive imagery (of refreshing alpine rivers, for instance), into dreamers’ minds. They hired a Harvard psychologist to design dream-incubation stimuli, incentivised participation with offers of free drinks, and, in a marketing coup, had the pop star Zayn Malik agree to sleep on Instagram Live while having an incubated Coors dream – though he did mention the whole project was ‘kinda messed up’.
This isn’t an isolated case. Multiple marketing studies are openly testing new ways to alter and drive purchasing behaviour through sleep and dream hacking. The American Marketing Association New York’s 2021 Future of Marketing study found that, of more than 400 marketers from firms across the United States, 77 per cent of them aim to deploy dream-tech for advertising in the next three years. 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.
Of course, advertisers are far from the first people to work on influencing and incubating dreams. Dream incubation stretches back more than 4,000 years to ancient Egypt, where sleepers lay in sacred beds in the Ṣaqqārah Serapeum to receive divine dreams; to ancient Greece, where ailing people went to dream in oracular temples; to today, where dream incubation plays a key role in healing, therapeutic and spiritual practices such as yoga nidra and Mohave shamanism. These traditions span time and place, providing tools for people to move from unpredictable dream content to sought-after dreams dealing with specific themes and issues. But technological advances and improved sleep science are expanding how such techniques can be reliably implemented.