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Those Memories of Disney World

Remember your childhood visit to Disney World?

Cinderella's castle glistening, the cartoon characters laughing, grouping for photos, the many rides with their height requirements, the smells of freshly cooked food, and Bugs Bunny shaking your hand?  As you bring that experience to mind, you may have the feeling you are reliving it, seeing your childhood pass through your mind's eye, much like reviewing a videotape.

But the way human memory works is very different from that of a video tape recorder—our memories are actually reconstructions of bits and pieces of information we have obtained over time.

Sometimes those reconstructions are very similar to what we experienced; other times we are "tricked" and remember things differently than how they actually happened.

In Fact, Most of what you recall didn't happen. 

Your past is constantly being updated to fit one’s changing self-knowledge and social contexts . The process of rewriting one’s history is natural and allows one to adapt to possibilities in the future. As time passes there lies a greater likelihood that temporally available information will be used to reconstruct, and perhaps distort, how the experience is remembered -- Thus, by the time you are 30,  about 15% of your memories are false. That's not to say 'wrong', but rather, they never occured at all.

Bugs Bunny is not a Disney character, yet some people "remember" him as being part of their childhood experience

Marketers use autobiographical advertising as a means to create nostalgia for their products. This research explores whether such referencing can cause people to believe that they had experiences as children that are mentioned in the ads. 

In Experiment 1, participants viewed an ad for Disney that suggested that they shook hands with Mickey Mouse as a child. Relative to controls, the ad increased their confidence that they had personally shaken hands with Mickey as a child at a Disney resort. The increased confidence could be due to a revival of a true memory or the creation of a new, false one.

In Experiment 2, participants viewed an ad for Disney that suggested that they shook hands with an impossible character (e.g.,Bugs Bunny). Again, relative to controls, the ad increased confidence that they personally had shaken hands with the impossible character as a child at a Disney resort.

You're probably thinking right now -- what idiots. Which is exactly why propaganda techniques based on this technology work so well. Facts are, memories you are using today, right this moment to make decisions are not yours.

The increased confidence is consistent with the notion that autobiographical referencing can lead to the creation of false or distorted memory. Advertisers play off consumers’ memories and emotions through the use of autobiographical referencing. The use of such referencing can cause consumers to focus less on rational product information and more on the feelings evoked by their recollected memories (Sujan, Bettman, & Baumgartner, 1993).

Increasingly, marketers are using this technique to appeal to Baby Boomers where these past images represent lasting expressions of freedom and youth (Marconi, 1996). For example, Walt Disney celebrated the 25th anniversary of Disney World in Orlando with an advertising campaign entitled “Remember the Magic.” The ads resembled vintage home movies and featured scenes of people swimming,meeting Mickey Mouse, and enjoying themselves on the theme park's exciting rides. The campaign’s aim may have been to remind consumers of their own past happy childhood memories of the park in order to get them to revisit.

But what if such referencing could change what consumers remember about their childhood memories of visiting the park?

Not all consumers have had happy experiences at Disney nor do they all have the ability to accurately conjure up those childhood images at will. Because consumers may use the advertising as a cue to recollect their past experience, there is the possibility that these recently generated advertising images may alter what consumers ultimately remember about their own childhood. After all, there is evidence that cues that get people to think over and over again about manufactured childhood events can be a relatively easy way to create false memories or beliefs about childhood (Loftus, 1997). Such findings have raised concerns about the accuracy of memories surfaced in hypnosis, guided imagery, or other prompts in psychotherapy (Lindsay & Read, 1994; Loftus & Ketcham,1994).

Marketers have found that autobiographical memories may be spontaneously activated within the context of an advertising message(Baumgartner, Sujan, & Bettman, 1992; Krugman, 1967). Marketers Have further shown that they can increase the likelihood consumers will activate their memories by focusing on experiential information (Wells,1986) or using dramatic narratives in their advertising campaigns(Boller, 1990). Autobiographical ads may cause consumers to imagine themselves in the advertised event, and this vicarious experience may alter how consumers remember their own past.

What if Disney’s “Remember the Magic” campaign implanted memories into consumers of things that never happened? The possibility that marketing stimuli can direct, guide, or change consumers’ autobiographical memories has gone largely untested. This research investigates whether the use of autobiographical referencing can cause imaginings of experiences (even impossible ones) that lead consumers to become more confdent that certain events had happened to them as children. This possibility holds both managerial opportunities and ethical ramifications.

Autobiographical Memory

Autobiographical memory can be defined as memory of past personal experiences. There has been much attention toward finding ways of accessing this type of knowledge because it is an important foundation of one's self concept (Hyman, Husband, & Billings, 1994). Sigmund Freud,for instance, believed his patients had repressed traumatic childhood memories in their subconscious and believed it was necessary to understand his patient's original childhood experiences in order to understand their adult problems.

Psychoanalysts believe childhood is important for understanding relationships because this is when attachment occurs, and those early relationships are thought to be prototypical of later relationships (Ainsworth, 1985). As applied to the consumer setting, early childhood brand relationships may set the emotional stage for later adult brand relationships.

Consumers’ memories of brands or brand experiences from childhood thus may have a great consequence in their decision making,as they conjure up those past emotional attachments: “These trails of autobiographical memories — they are perceived as veridical records accompanied by strong visual and, hence, vivid reliving of the original experience — are not only important in themselves, but especially because they suggest that the original emotions are also likely to be important components of autobiographical memories” (Baumgartner et al.,1992, p. 55, italics added).

Both psychoanalysts and marketers use cues to prod people to remember their past. In his work Freud eventually came to the conclusion that his patients were fantasizing much of their childhood experiences based on his own suggestions. The marketing research paradigms have focused on how brands might associate themselves with actual past consumer experiences. Virtually no research has examined memories of brand experiences, in particular childhood ones, and the manner in which the advertising infuences those recollections.

In light of previous findings on autobiographical referencing an important and yet unexplored question arises: Might exposure to an autobiographical ad altre consumer's recollection of a past childhood experience or even create a memory of an experience that never happened? For instance, some childhood memories may be based more on recurring ads consumers are exposed to rather than on recollection of actual childhood events. Similarly, some consumers may come to believe that they had taken part in an experience when in fact they had only viewed an ad of the event.

This alteration is possible because of the reconstructive nature of memory (see Schacter, 1995 for a full review; Braun, 1999, for its application in marketing). A consumer’s past is constantly being updated to fit one’s changing self-knowledge and social contexts (Bruner, 1986;Neisser & Fivush, 1994; Spence, 1982). The process of rewriting one’s history is natural and allows one to adapt to possibilities in the future (Hyman & Pentland, 1996). As time passes there lies a greater likelihood that temporally available information will be used to reconstruct, and perhaps distort, how the experience is remembered (Thompson,Skowronski, Larsen, & Betz, 1996).

False Memories and Imagination Inflation Memories that have had time to fade are particularly subject to distortion. For example, Loftus and Pickrell (1995) suggested to adult participants that at age I've they had been lost in a shopping mall and rescued by an elderly person. About a quarter of the adults fell sway to this suggestion.

Using a similar procedure, Hyman and Pentland (1996) suggested and had participants imagine having spilled a bowl of punch at a wedding as a child. About a quarter of adults fell sway to this suggestion, and even more did so when imagination of the experience was encouraged. The false memories typically incorporated the punchbowl incident into a broader account based on accurate personal knowledge.These studies show that with suggestion and imagination a significant minority of people can be led to believe that they had experiences that were manufactured, and many of them elaborated upon those false experiences with idiosyncratically produced details.

The act of imagining oneself having a childhood experience forces people to create alternatives to reality (if the experience never happened; Roese, 2000 discusses other effects of counterfactual thinking).The ease with which these vividly pictured figments of the imagination come to mind may promote their acceptance as real regardless of their actual veridicality (Schwarz, 1996). Such imagining might induce source attribution errors whereby the recently imagined event becomes confused with the actual past.

Researchers find it is particularly difficult to detect differences between recent imaging and childhood memory. For instance, Johnson, Foley, Suengas, and Payne (1988) asked participants to think of actual or imagined personal events from either the recent past or childhood and then rate them on a number of characteristics. They found far fewer significant differences between actual and imagined childhood events than for actual and imagined recent events.

A common result of having people imagine an experience is increased confidence that the event occurred. Garry, Manning, Loftus, and Sherman (1996) looked at the relationship between cues asking participants to imagine an experience and the later reporting of the event happening to them as a child. In their paradigm they asked participants to rate the likelihood certain childhood events happened to them on a life events inventory (LEI) containing many experiences, for example, getting lost in a shopping mall.

Two weeks later, half of the participants were instructed to imagine themselves as children experiencing several of these events, including some that had never happened to them. Only participants who performed the imaginative exercise reported substantial rises in confidence that both actual and illusory incidents had occurred. The researchers called this effect imagination inflation.

The idea that autobiographical advertising can infiuence how consumers remember their past is a timely issue. Manufacturers like Ovaltine, Alka Seltzer, Maxwell House, and ShakenBake have begun to dig into their vaults from the 1950s and 60s to pull out nostalgic images from past advertising campaigns. Undeniably, such ads tap into some existing consumer memories from their childhood. Marketers had believed the process began and ended with the ads cuing actual past experiences, as Freud’s general belief regarding the special status of the original memory has lingered.

But times are changing, and some marketers are beginning to realize that memories are constructive. Some have even benefited from the fact that their consumers’ memories have been manufactured. Take, for example, Stewart’s root beer.

Stewart's Root Beer reported many adults remember growing up drinking Stewart’s frosty root beer in bottles. This is impossible, because the company only began full scale distribution 10 years ago, and prior to that only fountain drinks were available. It could be that glass bottles adorned with sayings like “original” “oldfashioned”and “since 1924” provide consumers the illusion of a past that they might have shared as a child. In fact, the vice president of Stewart’s marketing swears he remembers drinking their soda after Little League games in an area where distribution was unlikely, but admits, “Memories are always better when they’re embellished” (Prince, 2000).

Although there is no direct evidence Disney altered memories through their “Remember the Magic” campaign, the evidence collected here suggests it is at least possible. The power of memory alteration is that consumers are not aware they have been influenced. The feeling associated with remembering a past event, of “seeing” the event unfold in their mind’s eye, provides one the belief that how it is recollected is how it happened.

So, for now, That's All Folks 

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