Elizabeth Loftus: The advertisers are coming for your childhood

From a lecture given by the Professor of Psychology at the University of Washington to the BA Science Festival, in Glasgow
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The Independent Online

Autobiographical memory can be defined as memory of a personal experience. There has been much attention on finding ways of accessing this type of knowledge because it is an important foundation of one's self-concept. Yet virtually no research has examined memories of brand experiences, in particular childhood ones, and the manner in which advertising influences those recollections. In light of previous findings on autobiographical referencing, an important and yet unexplored question arises: might exposure to an autobiographical advert alter a consumer's recollection of a childhood experience or even create a memory of an experience that never happened?

Our study investigated whether autobiographical advertising can prompt consumers to image their childhood experiences so their memories become more consistent with the images evoked in the advertising. We focused on a central childhood experience, visiting Disney World and, specifically, shaking hands with Mickey Mouse. From past research we know that pictures or images can trigger stronger "remembering" and that actions can be of superior value for prompting reconstruction because they typically form the unique attribute of a specific event.

For that reason, we designed our ad to incorporate various images from the park – from Disney's glistening castle to the mention of the theme song "It's a Small World". The ad began with "Remember the Magic" and describes a day in the park from a child's perspective, with the culmination being shaking hands with Mickey Mouse.

Participants viewed an ad for Disney that suggested that they shook hands with Mickey Mouse as a child. The ad increased their confidence that they personally had shaken hands with Mickey as a child at Disney World. This could be due to a revival of a true memory or the creation of a new, false one.

Next we tried to determine whether false information in advertising about childhood experiences at Disney could make consumers believe those events had happened to them. Participants viewed an ad for Disney that suggested that they shook hands with an impossible character (eg Bugs Bunny, not a Disney character). Again the ad increased confidence that they had shaken hands with the impossible character as a child.

The idea that autobiographical advertising can influence how consumers remember their past is a timely issue. Manufacturers like Ovaltine, Alka Seltzer, Maxwell House, and Shake-N-Bake have begun to dig into their vaults from the 1950s and 60s to put out nostalgic images from past advertising campaigns. Undeniably, such ads tap into some existing consumer memories from their childhood. Marketers had believed the process began and ended with the ads cuing actual past experiences.

But times are changing and some marketers are beginning to realise that memories are constructive. Some have even benefited from the fact that their consumers' memories have been manufactured. Take, for example, Stewart's Root Beer. They report many adults seem to remember growing up drinking their frosty root beer in bottles. Impossible, since the company only began full-scale distribution 10 years ago, and prior to that they were a fountain beverage only.

This brings forth ethical considerations. Is it OK for marketers to knowingly manipulate consumers' pasts? On the one hand, the alteration will occur whether or not that was the intent of the marketer, given the reconstructive nature of recall. And, in most cases, the advertiser is unlikely to try to "plant" a negative memory, as has been the issue with false memories of childhood abuse. On the other hand, there are ways in which the marketer can enhance the likelihood that consumer memories will be consistent with their advertising messages. At the very least, consumers ought to be aware of that power.