We have all heard of targeted advertising, but what about advertising that targets your dreams. US companies have begun programs to insert their products into your sleep cycle – to set the agenda of your dreams.

Several companies have either tried dream incubation in the past year or explored the possibility. Professors in sleep studies have said that businesses from Microsoft to Burger King have contacted them to test the viability of implanting dream suggestions that could help sell video games and consumer products.

Molson Coors has already entered the field in the world’s greatest advertising space – the Super Bowl. Coors called its methodology “targeted dream incubation” and its press release instructs people to “watch the dream inducing film three times, play the soundscape, go to sleep,” and experience influenced dreaming. The Coors company described its dream incubation sleep study in a YouTube video, and as part of the campaign invited all Super Bowl viewers to undertake their pre-sleep regime the night before the big game, and participants would get half off the cost of a 12 pack of Coors if they sent the link to a friend who also participated.

This and other attempts to introduce commercial messages into dreams were noticed by a group of sleep researchers who released a warning letter on the DXE editorial site. While recognizing that traditions of dream incubation go back hundreds of years and exist in many cultures, and that targeted dream intervention can have several positive psychological effects, the researchers warned against our dreams becoming “just another playground for corporate advertisers.” They noted the negative effect that dream interventions could have on alcoholics and nicotine/drug addicts, and found the potential for misuse by commercial enterprises to be ominous.

The researchers wrote, “[Targeted Dream Incubation] advertising is not some fun gimmick, but a slippery slope with real consequences. Planting dreams in people’s minds for the purpose of selling products, not to mention addictive substances, raises important ethical questions. The moral line dividing companies selling relaxing rain soundtracks to help people sleep from those embedding targeted dreams to influence consumer behavior is admittedly unclear at the moment.” The stated a deep concern about marketing plans aimed at generating profits “at the cost of interfering with our natural nocturnal memory processing.”

This blog has often discussed the intrusion of home technologies that insinuate companies deeper into our lives, but dream tech makes this intrusion much more insidious. Imagine the Amazon Echo or Google Nest in your room purring a low level of dream inducing commercial messaging for eight hours while you sleep, or even building the messages into your white-noise rain pattern that you use to stay asleep. We know, for example, that advertisements on smart televisions emit noises in frequencies people can’t hear to register connection with the other electronic devices like your phone, tablet in PC. Why couldn’t those same devices send signals designed to drive you to Taco Bell in your dreams? The combination of dream tech and always-on home devices may define the future of advertising.

The combination of dream tech and always-on home devices may define the future of advertising.

Of course there are less sophisticated methods of invading your dreamscape. Burger King has announced the release of a new sandwich called the Nightmare King that it claims is “clinically proven to induce nightmares” in those who eat it. I am not sure what in the combination of burger, bacon, chicken patty, onions or day-glo green bun induces nightmares, but apparently the good people at the Florida Sleep & Neuro Diagnostic Services have proved it in laboratory settings. This dream-influencer doesn’t bother me as much because it can be easily avoided. Commercials on my home electronic devices while I sleep, on the other hand, may not be so simple to detect or stop.

Digital marketers are excited about the dream influencing technology, and a surprising number of consumers as well. According to an American Marketing Association-New York 2021 Future of Marketing Survey cited in ZDNet 77% of marketers stated that they would deploy dream-tech in the next three years – more than would advertise on smart speakers or IoT devices – and 39% of consumers are open to the dream technology. The ZDNet author wrote, “I can't wait to see how this consumer vs. marketing adoption off dream-tech plays out. Here's a guess: Facebook figures out who looks at the app before bed and hits you with something to influence your dreams. Congressional hearings will ensue – again – but at least Facebook is used to it.”

As you might imagine, regulators have not begun to address dream incubating technology. Despite the marketers’ enthusiasm, there is no serious indication that the tech works yet. But we are in early stages. The FTC has made clear indications in the past that embedding advertisements or influencing messages – subliminal messaging – will be considered an unfair and deceptive practice in violation of the FTC Act, so it would be easy to see how hiding messages to seed commercial dreams would trigger the same legal treatment.

We rest now at the early stages of this technology. But the sleep scientists warned, “Brain science helped design several addictive technologies, from cell phones to social media, that now shape much of our waking lives; we do not want to see the same happen to our sleep. 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.”

It will be interesting to see how the technology develops, and whether regulators stop it in its tracks, or wait until the dangers become more clear before setting ground rules.