My episodic memory stinks. All my birthday parties are a blur of cake and presents. I’m notorious within my family for confusing the events of my own childhood with those of my siblings. I’m like the anti-Proust.
And yet, I have this one cinematic memory from high-school. I’m sitting at a Friday night football game (which, somewhat mysteriously, has come to resemble the Texas set of Friday Night Lights), watching the North Hollywood Huskies lose yet another game. I’m up in the last row of the bleachers with a bunch of friends, laughing, gossiping, dishing on AP tests. You know, the usual banter of freaks and geeks. But here is the crucial detail: In my autobiographical memory, we are all drinking from those slender glass bottles of Coca-Cola (the vintage kind), enjoying our swigs of sugary caffeine. Although I can’t remember much else about the night, I can vividly remember those sodas: the feel of the drink, the tang of the cola, the constant need to suppress burps.
It’s an admittedly odd detail for an otherwise logo free scene, as if Coke had paid for product placement in my brain. What makes it even more puzzling is that I know it didn’t happen, that there is no way we could have been drinking soda from glass bottles. Why not? Because the school banned glass containers. Unless I was willing to brazenly break the rules — and I was way too nerdy for that — I would have almost certainly been guzzling Coke from a big white styrofoam container, purchased for a dollar from the concession stand. It’s a less romantic image, for sure.
So where did this sentimental scene starring soda come from? My guess is a Coca-Cola ad, one of those lavishly produced clips in which the entire town is at the big football game and everyone is clean cut, good looking and holding a tasty Coke product. (You can find these stirring clips on YouTube.) The soda maker has long focused on such ads, in which the marketing message is less about the virtues of the product (who cares if Coke tastes better than Pepsi?) and more about associating the drink with a set of intensely pleasurable memories.
A new study, published in The Journal of Consumer Research, helps explain both the success of this marketing strategy and my flawed nostalgia for Coke. It turns out that vivid commercials are incredibly good at tricking the hippocampus (a center of long-term memory in the brain) into believing that the scene we just watched on television actually happened. And it happened to us.