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False memories and advertising

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Wednesday, Oct 22, 2008

As someone who is extremely wary about the inescapable influence of marketing, I find things like this sort of terrifying: PsyBlog has a post about how false memories are (1) easy to implant, and (2) influence our behavior much the same way real memories do. Researchers convinced participants that they had an unpleasant experience with egg salad in the past and this caused them to eschew egg salad during the study.


What this study clearly shows is that not only is it possible to instil false memories in a significant minority of people, but that these false memories can have a marked effect on behaviour.
Naturally this should make us wonder which of our preferences, attitudes, or phobias even, might be based on false recollections. Could that distaste for yellow peppers have stemmed from a false memory of getting sick after eating them? Or could that desire for a seaside home be built on childhood beach trips misremembered as enjoyable?


(Methodological questions: Wouldn’t anyone in their right mind reject egg salad? Does this have any bearing on Phil Moskowitz’s pursuit of the world’s best egg-salad recipe?)
It seems to me that the marketing war is fought mainly on the terrain of memory—which, incidentally, is why nostalgia is so dangerous. Ad campaigns, when they are not trying to undermine the principles of cause and effect so as to make their free associational assertions seem stronger, are basically trying to rewrite our memories, and we are easily persuaded to cooperate because the false memories are generally preferable to the real ones. The problem is the false ones from marketing come with a commercial virus built in to them, slanting our recollection of what pleases us toward shopping experiences, or toward experiences that require branded goods. Perhaps the most important skill, then, for someone who seeks to resist consumerism is the ability to forget everything, treat each day like a blank slate, a la the protagonist in Memento. Similarly, the best way to avoid brand consciousness, which hinges on our passion for grooming our social identities, is to aspire to have no identity at all. Ugh. Such is the hegemony of consumerism that best mode of resistance appears to be self-inflicted amnesia.

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