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Dreaming of Geritol
(No. 65) No rest for the weary marketers, by Stephen P. Williams
True terror is to wake up one morning and discover that your high school class is running the country.
In dreams begin responsibilities
Dreamscape photo by Kyle Smith on Unsplash
Increasingly, corporate marketers are enticed by the idea of inserting their products into our dreams. Yes, it has come to this.
Clearly, these companies have read, “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” a short story written by Delmore Schwartz when he was 21 and living in a Washington Square boarding house. In the story, a guy dreams that he’s watching a movie of his parents’ courtship in an old time movie theater. The film is shoddily made, but he watches intently until he suddenly has a breakdown and begins yelling at the screen. The ushers throw him out on the street. Then the guy wakes up from his dream, bleak, and it’s the morning of his 21st birthday.
The story demonstrates the power of dreams to affect our moods and desires, and today’s marketers are believers. The corporate dream invaders want to plant moods and desires in our skulls before we have any choice about it. To that end, they hope to employ a technique called targeted dream incubation (TDI) to influence the pre-sleep experiences of us consumers*, to cause ‘hypnagogic dreams,’ which have long been known to influence our actions.
For example, a turn of the century (aka: 2000, not 1900) study published in Science found that people who devoted hours to the video game called Tetris had the game's imagery appear in their dreams as they fell asleep. A 2020 study in the Journal of Cognition connected the use of a virtual reality flight simulator to the amount of flying dreams during naps and at night time. Why not visions of Applebees and Dr. Scholl’s instead?
In effect, TDI inserts “content” into the dreams that happen in your first minutes of sleep. It’s not a new technique. For centuries, at least, shamanic souls have stimulated themselves and others with dream suggestions. Many artists have used version of TDI to unleash creative ideas.
The flamboyant surrealist artist, Salvador Dali, described a dream-influencing technique he used to solve problems as “slumber with a key.” He would sit with one arm outstretched on an armrest, a heavy key dangling from his fingers over a metal bowl set on the floor. While settling into a nap in the chair, he would think about a creative problem he faced. The second he fell asleep, his fingers would involuntarily release the key so it would clank into the bowl. Often, he would wake up with the solution to his problem clear in his mind. Dali claimed to have learned the technique from Capuchin monks.
Dali painting: Photo by Juan Carlos Trujillo on Unsplash
Dali’s technique is similar to TDI, though the corporate thought prompts that now encourage people to dream about products are introduced by smart phones and other devices. A recent study by the American Marketing Association found that nearly 80 percent of marketers in the US hope to use this technique by 2024. Molson-Coors is already experimenting with using prompts the night before a football game to influence people’s dreams to make them more likely to consume beer during the game the next day. Molson-Coors’ prompts arrive by phone, but there would be nothing to stop marketers from reading sleep data collected by a fitness tracker, and have the person’s Alexa play certain stimuli during different stages of sleep, to, for instance, influence an elderly person to decide homemade protein smoothies are just too much trouble in a world of Ensure.
Apple, Amazon, Google, Oura, Fitbit and many other companies now track our sleep. Given their fiduciary responsibility to their shareholders, wouldn’t they be likely to use this data to deliver marketing messages to us when we’re dozing in Neverland? I fear that older people, who at the moment are most susceptible to marketing scams and fraud, will be most easily exploited by TDI. Let’s all pay attention to the technology we allow into our day-to-day lives.
Meanwhile, there are the more traditional dream technologies to consider, many of them ancient. For a look at the dream journeys and manifestations of Indigenous South Americans, I suggest that you read The World is as You Dream It, by John Perkins. This book can seem hokey in parts, but nonetheless it opened up a world of possibilities in my own life about 30 years ago.
*How have we allowed ourselves to be defined as “consumers”? When you really consider the term, it’s gross.
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