A new study published by NorthWestern University has demonstrated how brands could potentially influence sleeping consumers subliminally by exposing them to sounds – and perhaps vibrations from a wearable – paired with a brand (full paper, experimental material).

The study ‘Unlearning implicit social biases during sleep‘ looked at how exposure to counter-stereotypes (e.g. female + science) can modify unconscious negative bias in gender (and race) as measured by the Implicit Association Test.  Translated to brands, this might be similar to exposing consumers to ads that debunk negative stereotypes (e.g. as Hyundai has been successfully doing by presenting itself as a premium brand).

Now, there is nothing new about counter-bias training, nor is there anything new about the fact that stereotypical mental associations unconsciously influence our perceptions and attitudes.  You can check how ageist, racist or sexist you really are by doing the IAT yourself here (Harvard’s Project Implicit).

What is new is that in this study the researchers paired counter-stereotypes with particular sounds – here and here – by playing the sounds during exposure. A proportion of participants were then exposed to these paired sounds again subliminally as they slept. Continuing the Hyundai analogy above, this would be akin to an ad soundtrack – say to the Hyundai ad – being played as the consumer slept, perhaps through a branded sleep app for drivers.

What the study found was that exposure to the paired sound whilst sleeping increased the effectiveness of prior exposure to counter-stereotypes. People exposed to paired sounds whilst they slept became less sexist or racist as measured by the IAT for over a week.

Now, there are all sorts of caveats here, notably that this finding needs to be replicated before marketers – especially those who have had an ethical bypass surgery – get too excited.  Also, this pilot study only measured implicit mental bias, not explicit behavioural bias – actual racist or sexist behaviour was not measured.  And the study certainly didn’t give any credence to any ‘learn French/astrophysics/knitting while you sleep’ quackery out there.

Nevertheless, the study does open up the possibility for enhancing marketers attempts at ‘evaluative conditioning’ (pairing a brand with positive stimuli) with the additional pairing of a sound that is then played – with the consumers permission of course – via a device as the consumer sleeps.  One interesting option, with the rise of wearables, and haptic feedback, is to ‘brand’ certain haptic vibrations and sensations – and play them back as consumers sleep.

Have we found a reason for the Apple Watch to exist in our Brave New World of Marketing?

Subliminal Sound Pairing