British Association festival of science 2001
No thanks for the memory ... it was only a TV advertTim Radford, science editor
The Guardian (UK)
Wednesday September 5, 2001
Future generations of Britons will wistfully recall their wholemeal Hovis childhoods, that first Werther's Original toffee from cuddly grandpa, and those festive meals around a Bisto gravy Sunday roast - even though they might never have experienced them.
Elizabeth Loftus, a psychologist at the University of Washington, told the association yesterday that commercial advertisers could be unwittingly implanting false memories in unsuspecting viewers.
She and colleagues had studied a Walt Disney TV advertising campaign called "remember the magic". This used imagery that evoked family outings and what seemed to be home movies of people shaking hands with Mickey Mouse. She wondered if these ads had triggered "memories" in viewers who might never have been to Disneyland, or shaken hands with Mickey Mouse.
So she tested volunteers with her own "Disneyland advert" in which someone shook hands with an impossible character - Bugs Bunny, created by Warner Bros. She found she was right: some of the volunteers who saw her film were more likely to believe that they had in fact met Bugs Bunny at Disneyland in childhood.
She found that Ovaltine, Alka-Seltzer and Maxwell House had begun to dig into their vaults for nostalgic film of 40 years ago. In one study, US adults "remembered" drinking Stewart's root beer from bottles in their youth, although the bottles had only been in production for 10 years.
A vice-president of marketing swore he remembered drinking from the bottle after childhood baseball games and then told her: "Memories are always better when they are embellished."
Professor Loftus established five years ago that false memories could be suggested. She asked respondents to "imagine" being lost as a child, and months later they recalled as real memories the imaginative tests she had set them.
"In a sense, life is a continual memory alteration experiment where memories are continually shaped by new incoming information. This brings forth ethical considerations. Is it okay for marketers knowingly to manipulate consumers' pasts?
"On the one hand, the alteration will occur whether or not that was the intent of the marketer. And in most cases, the marketer is unlikely to try to 'plant' a negative memory.
"On the other, there are ways in which the marketer can enhance the likelihood that consumer memories will be consistent with their advertising messages."
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001