For anyone who has seen Christopher Nolan's mind-bending movie "Inception," the science of planting images and ideas into a subject's brain is not pure fiction. A research team at Northwestern University are actually working on a study designed to make people remember things that never happened. As a result, there is speculation that implanted memories into one's existing photos could alter one's reality of the past and subsequent brand loyalty.
According to a CBS News report, based on this premise, brands could implant corporate product placement into online photos, and social networks like Facebook could use this technology as a new means of targeted advertising. In essence, visual trickery and insidious psychology research of this type could lead brands to 'photoshop' ad messaging into life experiences that never happened.
While this takes the issue of privacy to a whole new level, Aza Raskin, the creative lead on Firefox at Mozilla, says, "it's a very simple thing. I would not be surprised if, in the outside, within three years, someone's starting to do this."
The susceptibility of the human mind to the implantation of false memories has been in the works for some time and the experiments by Elizabeth Loftus, a professor of psychology at the University of California has already proved that targeting false memories into humans can alter shopping patterns. In one study, she convinced as many as 40 percent of her subjects to pay more for strawberry ice cream after suggesting falsely that the subjects loved the flavor as a child.
In this YouTube video, Loftus makes a point about this research in referencing Hillary Clinton's now infamous gaffe when she embellished her past trip to Bosnia referring to "landing under sniper fire."
But verbal suggestion is at the low end of the spectrum regarding this research. Jeremy Ballenson, the founding director of Stanford University's Virtual Human Interaction Lab believes that photo implant memory is much more powerful than speech, and nothing fools the human brain more than self-portraits.
According to Ballenson, "the human brain hasn't evolved to deal with a mirror image that acts autonomously - if the self is shown using a product that the self has never used, over time, the association between the self and the product remains, but the specific source of the association fades over time," he says.
The tricky part is how to introduce this advertising technique to the public when "false advertising" is something that has been abhorrent to consumers for years. However, according to Raskin, he notes that "social networking sites may either begin selling ad space in our memories as a business model for themselves, or people may directly offer themselves up as a platform for advertising to make some cash." In essence, this approach would be replacing 'celebrity' endorsements with "social-networking-followers-you-trust' endorsements. This is also supported by the fact that product placement within photos has greater value than simple TV commercials.
On the flip side, the ethics of such advertising could put the social networking user at risk of losing the trust of his followers. Similar to a celebrity endorsement, if the product turns out to be less than advertised, one's 'microendorsement' is on the line for recommending it to one's friends.
So far, no company has performed 'social networking inception advertising' for profit - but the mere fact that research is being conducted on the university level indicates there is a lot of interest in learning more about how this type of advertising could be integrated into the field of commerce.
Altering data about ourselves is a very slippery slope and one that requires a lot thought and transparency. A 'cloak and dagger' approach by any social network would certainly raise doubts and concern from its user base. And Facebook has enough to deal with presently with the current privacy breaches it has exposed to its members. Inception advertising has a long way to go before it could ever become an acceptable norm in the social media space. Your thoughts, readers?
For another take on Inception affecting our "social media" dream state, check out my previous post, "Social Media of Dreams - Christopher Nolan's 'Inception.' "