Truth or Consequences?
Exploiting psychology in law and advertising.
In a subsequent article for the Cornell Hotel and Restaurant Administration Quarterly, Loftus, Braun, and Braun's husband (Braun, having added her husband's surname, was now Kathryn Braun-LaTour) demonstrated "how to employ reconstructed memory to help restore a brand damaged by a crisis." Using similar mock ads, they planted recollections of happy childhood visits to Wendy's: playing on the slide, jumping in the ball pit, swinging on the swing sets. These recollections couldn't be true, since Wendy's had never had such equipment. Compared with subjects who were shown an ad offering a free Frosty, those who were shown the happy-childhood ads reported that they had visited and enjoyed Wendy's more as children, including the fictional Wendy's Playland. The authors concluded that "it is better to engage consumers emotionally after a crisis situation than to appeal to their rational side."
If Loftus didn't condone memory tampering, why was she explaining how to do it? In part, she was just doing as she had been trained. You had to get published, and publishers wanted value for their readers. When you wrote for therapy journals, you offered advice to therapists. When you wrote for legal journals, you offered advice to lawyers. When you wrote for advertising journals, you offered advice to advertisers. That was how the game was played.
But Loftus was more than a trainee. She was a trainer. She had learned how to make people remember and believe things, and this knowledge was as useful to advertisers as it was to lawyers. Her only qualm about manipulation was that people might be harmed. And advertising didn't strike her as terribly harmful. Most advertisers, she and her colleagues noted, were "unlikely to try to plant a negative memory, as has been the issue with false memories of childhood abuse."
That was why Loftus treated advertisers more kindly than she treated recovered-memory therapists. The therapists' motives might be better, but the memories they planted were worse. Welfare, not honesty, was her god.
But in that case, what if you could help people by deceiving them?
In her curious mind, the idea was already brewing.
Will Saletan covers science, technology, and politics for Slate and says a lot of things that get him in trouble.
Photographs of Mickey Mouse ad, Bugs Bunny ad, and Wendy's ad courtesy Elizabeth Loftus.