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Can Nostalgic Advertising Re-Write Your Childhood Memories?

The impact of false memories on consumer choice

neon-colored Keds sneakers

An evocative ad campaign for Keds sneakers in the 1990s had women reminiscing. "What size Keds were you wearing," prompted the ads, "when they stopped delivering milk? When your mother was the prettiest woman on earth? When you learned to take a compliment? And you started holding your father's hand?" The ads were an invitation to indulge in nostalgia about a secure childhood with all the trimmings: strong parental figures, leafy neighborhoods, cheery milkmen and playing hopscotch in your scuffed-up Keds.

Except that those fond childhood "memories" may well have involved some imaginary sneakers.

Memory researchers have known for a long time now that memory is about re-imagining events more than it is about recording them, and that skillfully applying the right suggestions can induce people to "remember" all sorts of childhood events that never happened to them. More recently, some have been turning their attention to the techniques used in advertising, especially in ads that are designed to envelop readers and viewers in a warm sepia-toned glow, with the kind of language that inspires imaginative remembering.

For example, in a 2002 study led by Kathryn Braun, readers saw the following ad for Disney theme parks:

It's time to remember the magic

Take a look back into your childhood... Try to recall the first time you visited a Disney theme park... Bring that image to mind... See Cinderella's castle glisten in the bright sunlight... feel the breeze that cooled off the sweat you worked up as you ran from ride-to-ride to fit the most excitement into your day. Recall the pride you felt as you cleared the height requirement indicated by the character's wooden hand... that allowed you to go on the really cool rides like Space Mountain.

You were in your element—festival food, scary rides and exciting shows. With the song "It's a Small World After All" in your mind, you ventured back to your hotel to rest up for another day. Just then, you spotted one of the characters, looks like Bugs Bunny! He waved you over. Adrenaline rushed through you and you somehow managed to move your feet in his direction. He shook your hand. The perfect end to a perfect day.

There. Floating in nostalgic reverie yet? Were you one of those fortunate kids who got to go to Disneyland or Disneyworld for spring break? And were you lucky enough to shake hands with Bugs? If so, you have fallen prey to a false memory. Bugs Bunny is a Warner Brothers character, not a Disney creation, and if he were spotted strolling through Disneyworld trying to shake hands with children, he'd more than likely be removed by security guards.

The text you just read comes from a fake ad created by Braun and colleagues to resemble an actual Disney ad. The people who read it believed they were taking part in a study to test the effectiveness of various marketing techniques. And sure enough, when asked afterwards about their own childhood memories of visiting a Disney park, about a fifth of them reported that they had met Bugs Bunny.

Since this particular study, researchers have been interested in how false memories might impact consumer choices. In one experiment, people were led to believe that they had liked asparagus the first time they'd tried it as children—as a result, they said they'd be more willing to choose it on a restaurant menu, and seemed willing to pay more for it than a group whose memory had not been similarly infiltrated.

Negative memories can be induced as well, with consequences for consumer choice. One study used a fake news story to implant the false memory that Pluto may have inappropriately licked participants' ears on a childhood trip to a Disney park—these folks had more negative memories of Pluto and were willing to pay less for a Pluto souvenir than people who hadn't succumbed to the false belief.

These unreliable trips down memory lane suggest that advertisers have a great deal to gain from tweaking our reminiscences. And with an aging consumer population that is especially receptive to nostalgic themes in ads, we can expect to see many more attempts by marketers to get us to re-imagine our happiest memories as being woven together with that special brand of soda, cookies or toothpaste that Mom always used to buy for us.

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To read more about these experiments on false memories:

Braun, K.A., Ellis, R. & Loftus, E.F. 2002. Make my memory: How advertising can change our memories of the past. Psychology & Marketing, 19, 1-23.

Laney, C., Morris, E.K., Bernstein, D.M., Wakefield, B.M., & Loftus, E.F. 2008. Asparagus, a love story: Healthier eating could be just a false memory away. Experimental Psychology, 55, 291-300.

Berkowitz, S.R., Laney, C., Morris, E.K., Garry, M., & Loftus, E.F. 2008. Pluto behaving badly: False beliefs and their consequences. American Journal of Psychology, 121, 643-660.

Copyright © 2011 Julie Sedivy, All Rights Reserved