How Tricky Advertising Creates False Memories

false memoriesI’ve been told I have a super-powered, amazing memory, especially when it comes to my childhood.

Family members (mostly my mom) marvel at how well I can recall details from Christmases, birthday parties and stories of hilarious hijinks I pulled as a mischievous little kid.

But do I really have a good memory, or is it just a good imagination? Could I have pieced together my recollection of going to meet my baby brother at just two years-old from pictures in photo albums and stories I heard from others?

Psychologists say we really do fabricate false memories, and advertisers often use that to their advantage, making you fall in love with a product you think you relate to.

In fact…the advertisements you watch may actually alter your memories!

Psychologist, author and memory expert Elizabeth Loftus says her research has shown memories can be distorted as well as actually implanted in a person’s mind.

She almost did it to actor Alan Alda (aka Hawkeye from M*A*S*H) on the PBS show Scientific American Frontiers. Alda was nearly convinced that he got sick eating hard-boiled eggs as a kid, and now he hated them. The actor actually refused eggs at a picnic, but was unsure about having a memory about getting sick on them when he was young.

Loftus says falsified memories could explain things like people who think they were abducted by aliens or unreliable eyewitness testimony. It’s kind of similar to how a hypnotist uses the power of suggestion to make you act like an idiot.

Delicious, Fresh…and Completely Made Up!

A study (PDF) published in the Journal of Consumer Research in 2011 points out that fake memories may not only affect our perception of the past. Advertisers can also use them to influence our future behaviors.

Lead authors of the study, Priyali Rajagopal and Nicole Montgomery, say they tested college students by putting them in focus groups in which participants viewed advertisements for products that didn’t really exist. Students were introduced to things like Dial Naturals Soap and Orville Redenbacher’s Gourmet Fresh Popcorn.

Some students viewed high-imagery ads of these imaginary products, some saw low-imagery ads. After that, some of the students were given samples of the product to try while others took a survey. The samples were actually of existing products, like Orville Redenbacher’s Movie Theater Butter Popcorn, but the test subjects didn’t know.

A week went by and the students were quizzed on what they remembered about the product. What is bizarre is that many subjects who viewed the high-imagery ads, yet never tried a sample, now believed they’d actually eaten the popcorn before or used the soap at some point. Plus, they were so sure they’d tried it, they actually claimed to love the way this non-existent popcorn tasted!

Montgomery and Rajagopal call this the “Falsified Experience Effect.” But in what way do big brands take advantage of this psychological wackiness?

How Advertisers Manipulate Your Memory

Wired Magazine contributor Jonah Lehrer wrote about the study and his own story of falsified experience. It had to do with the planet’s favorite soda, Coca Cola.

Lehrer remembered drinking Coke out of glass bottles with friends at a high school football game. He could see it in his mind as clear as day, but he also came to the conclusion it couldn’t be a real memory. That’s because Lehrer recalled that glass containers were strictly prohibited at school sporting events. Plus, he highly doubted that he would have had the guts to break the rules and sneak in a bottle of Classic Coke.

fake vintage coke adIn a sense, Coca Cola had managed to acquire some product placement in Lehrer’s personal memories.

Soda sold in glass bottles is pretty hard to find these days. Soft drinks are only served that way as nostalgic novelties.

But for some reason, Coca Cola regularly shows it’s namesake beverage being served in a thick glass bottle that is dripping with condensation and just begging you to pop the top and listen to that refreshing fizz.

Think about it…have you ever seen those polar bears drinking from a can? Has Santa ever poured himself a Coca Cola from a plastic bottle? No, it wouldn’t be the same.

It’s all about accessing the emotional side of your brain so that you start to feel this intense connection with what a commercial is trying to sell you. If we feel like a product or company played an important role in a significant part of our lives – we end up connecting it to certain feelings – even if that product wasn’t a part of the real experience.

The truth may be that our memories are always changing. It could be happening every single time you bring up that memory in your mind and then stick it back in storage. Lehrer explains it this way…

“It’s the difference between a ‘Save’ and the ‘Save As’ function. Our memories are a ‘Save As’: They are files that get rewritten every time we remember them, which is why the more we remember something, the less accurate the memory becomes… We steal our stories from everywhere. Marketers, it turns out, are just really good at giving us stories we want to steal.”

I’ll admit, it’s a bit depressing that my amazing memory is probably as real as the Easter Bunny’s torrid love triangle with the Tooth Fairy and Sasquatch. I hate to think that all those entertaining stories I tell around the campfire are a bunch of B.S.

But at least I know the truth. And at least we all know to watch out for advertising that wants to move in on our precious memories.

Hey! Remember that one time when we were all hot, skinny teenagers and we all hung out at the beach all day long and floated in the air while we drank Coke? Yeah sure it happened. Just watch this video! Man, that was so much fun!

Image Credit: jasonEscapist, Luiz Fernando/Sonia Maria

+Kasey Steinbrinck writes regularly on personal finances, consumer news and the U.S. economy for CheckAdvantage. Visit them today and view their cool personal checks including Dog Checks.

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