Adverts plant memories of an imagined childhood

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The Independent Online

Advertisements on television depicting nostalgic childhood scenes could be planting false memories of events that never happened into the minds of potential consumers, scientists told the British Association conference yesterday.

A psychologist who found that certain commercials could cause a consumer version of false-memory syndrome has questioned the ethics of deliberately using nostalgia of a lost childhood to sell products.

Elizabeth Loftus, professor of psychology at the University of Washington in Seattle, said a number of companies, from the manufacturers of Ovaltine and Maxwell House to Disney, with its "remember the magic" campaign, used what she termed "autobiographical advertising" to invoke a real or imagined childhood memory.

The Disney advertisements, launched to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Disney World in Orlando, resembled vintage home movies with people swimming, enjoying the park's rides and meeting Mickey Mouse. "What if such referencing could change what consumers remember about their childhood memories of visiting the park?" Professor Loftus asked.

To test this idea, scientists made a fake advertisement showing Disney "visitors" meeting Bugs Bunny – who was never a Disney character. When the fake commercial was shown to volunteers in the test, many became convinced that they too had shaken hands with the rabbit character.

"This brings forth ethical considerations. Is it OK for marketeers to knowingly manipulate consumers' past?" the professor asked.