Can Vivid Ads Create False Memories?

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Apparently so, according to a recent study by researchers from the marketing departments at Southern Methodist University and the College of William and Mary.

In a simple experiment, 100 undergraduate students were divided into two groups and shown one of two print ads for an imaginary popcorn product from Orville Redenbacher. One version featured imagery of young people enjoying a bowl of popcorn along with a vivid description of its taste. The other was much simpler with only a logo and basic product description. After reading the ads, selected members of each group were then allowed to taste the popcorn.

A week later, the students were asked to report their memories of the popcorn including whether or not they’d eaten it. Surprisingly, students who merely read the more detailed advertisement were just as likely to ‘remember’ having eaten the popcorn as those who actually did. Students who read the basic version were far less likely to have misremembered the experience.

So what’s going on here? Can imagery-evoking advertising really trick us into inventing memories of experiences that didn’t occur? If so, is that okay?

I say yes on both counts. While I’m not sure how accurately this study reflects real-world circumstances (advertising rarely enjoys the luxury of such a captive audience), as a copywriter I find the notion of inspiring false memories in consumers quite compelling. Just like a good book pulls the reader into the story, good advertising should pull the consumer into the experience.

The study has raised some ethical questions as to whether or not this type of advertising can be too manipulative, but I find that a bit silly. After all, the basic purpose of advertising is to claim a lasting space in a consumer’s mind; if that entails creating a false memory or two, then mission accomplished.

Now, please excuse me while I fondly reflect on that time I met “Mean Joe Greene.”


  • August 10, 2011, 2:58 pm  Reply

    My brother hates when I talk about all interaction as manipulation. He finds the term to be too callous. It’s just that if you boil things down to their core, it’s the truth. When a company comes to you wanting to better communicate their message, that’s our job – to manipulate where they cannot.

    I suppose there are times where people just can’t accept that, take the Camel Joe cigarettes incident of may years past or the California case against violent video games this year. However, in the majority, like in the latter example, Free Speech gets a win.

    It’s a delicate balance, but that’s why marketers with integrity are highly sought after: for knowing when and where that gray area is and whether or not it’s wise to enter it.

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