The power of advertising to "rewrite" childhood memories has been exposed with the help of Bugs Bunny.
A group of students was prompted by a phoney magazine advertisement to recall a meeting with the rabbit on a visit to the Walt Disney World theme park.
The encounter could never have happened because Bugs is a Warner Bros character. The recollection was an imaginative creation engendered by the ad.
The research was done by Elizabeth Loftus, professor of psychology at the University of Washington in Seattle, and colleagues at Harvard Business School and the University of Pittsburgh. The scientists do not suggest that the ad industry sets out to rewrite memories, but the tactic appears to have this effect in some people. "You do not need to be in therapy or coercive police interrogation to have this tampering with your autobiography - you just have to watch television," Professor Loftus said.
In one experiment, a group of students were shown a Disney ad featuring a nostalgic recollection of shaking hands with Mickey Mouse as a child. Many test subjects subsequently recalled that the incident had happened to them. Another group was shown a similar ad with Bugs Bunny. Sixteen per cent of them later thought they had actually seen and met the cartoon rabbit.
The findings, to be published in the journal Psychology and Marketing , raise questions about the nature of memories recalled with the assistance of therapists.