In the movie Total Recall, one of the plot devices is that the character played by Arnold Schwarzenegger has his memory erased. The movie may be science fiction, but the idea of erasing memories may be science fact.
Memory is plastic and changeable. The idea that memories can be deleted—or perhaps “overwritten”— can be found in the psychological effect known as “verbal overshadowing.” If you show someone a picture of a face and then ask him to describe it in words, he will afterwards have a slightly harder time recognizing the face than if there was no attempt to first reconstruct the face verbally from memory.
The idea that memories can be erased from working memory storage is also inherent in the idea of the attentional blink. The suppression of memory associated with the blink works in both directions. If something really interesting appears on a screen then it pushes the image that preceded it out of working memory, as well as inhibiting attention to the image that follows for about half a second. That is why short-term memory produces rising and falling wave-like peaks.
There is now evidence that this erasing process can work over a time span of several minutes, not just seconds.
Advertisers dream of the eternal sunshine of a spotless consumer mind into which they can implant brand memories. But the reality is that different brands are competing to colonize the same places in the mind with their memories. The result may be dueling memories.
In a recent analysis we performed of fifteen commercials, where two competing ads appeared in the same commercial pod, we found that the stronger of two ads actually erases the memories that the weaker of the two ads is attempting to lay down.
The net result is that if you have a commercial that is performing at a superior creative level—i.e. pretesting tells you that your ad is an “A” on attention-getting power—and your ad happens to run against a “C” commercial from a competitor in the same pod, your strong commercial will overwrite your competitor’s ad and turn theirs into a “D” performance.
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