OnMarch 31st, sleepsleepsleepsleep.com went live. On it was a single eight-part document announcing #slowave: a mattress company’s attempt to buy itself a meme.
At 3,300 words, the slowave manifesto was an unusual piece of writing. It critiqued the fact that a good night’s sleep costs money. It name-checked John Maynard Keynes. It questioned the metaphor of sleep as an off button. Perhaps, it suggested, we’d be better off if we all thought a bit harder about sleep:
Sleep is the Kim Kardashian of wellness — omnipresent as a topic of conversation, impossible to escape, but all the same, a bit abstract. Who is she really? What exactly does she do?
A few news outlets picked up on slowave. Most did so out of curiosity about its author, Sean Monahan, a known pop-culture term-coiner. Monahan’s socialist art collective, K-hole, enjoyed a breakout moment in 2013 when it launched the fashion meme normcore (think aggressively bland Gap clothes). At first, normcore befuddled some trendspotters: Was it real, or was it a joke? It didn’t matter. By naming it, K-hole made normcore real, with the term persisting to this day. And K-hole’s members were suddenly attracting clients. Could Monahan repeat the normcore magic with sleep?
The short answer: No. After a light dusting of news briefs and tweets, including one by Jenny McCarthy, sleepsleepsleepsleep.com settled back into internet obscurity.
The meme-that-wasn’t was paid for by Casper, the mattress-in-a-box startup that blanketed the New York City subway with ads this spring and churned out a thousand-plus stories about sleep through its content-marketing operation, Van Winkle’s. Slowave’s failure to spread was an unusual hiccup in Casper’s otherwise first-rate performance on social media, with enviable followings of 339,000 on Facebook, 37,000 on Instagram and 65,000 on Twitter. The company has fueled an unboxing fad, with tickled customers sharing their videos of mattresses unfurling out of their packaging. Other upstart mattress brands — Tuft & Needle, Leesa, Saatva, Keetsa, Helix, Yogabed, Purple— come nowhere near that meaty social footprint.
In interviews with far-flung publications, Casper’s founders have described wanting to become “the Nike of sleep” — to transform consumers from passive sleepers into active ones, and to “revolutionize the bedroom.” “We believe that sleep is the next great lifestyle investment,” cofounder Luke Sherwin told me. He sees sleep as the successor to organic food and ever-more-rarefied coffee. With about $100 million in revenue in 2015, its first full year of mattress sales, Casper is off to a strong start.
Casper wants us to care about sleep, fret about sleep, spend lots of money on sleep. It now sells sheets and pillows, too, with more products on the way. But before we literally buy into the commercialization of our unconscious, I’d like to capture this moment in amber: Casper has pulled off an extraordinary feat in convincing legions of twentysomethings to love something as pedestrian as a mattress company. For a startup whose success is based largely off social media, what does it mean that it flubbed slowave, its high-concept meme?
Tounderstand Casper, you have to start with their unboxing videos. In the legions of nearly identical videos that now populate Youtube, proud owners grab their bulky new box in a bear hug, jostle it until the rolled-up mattress slides out, and slice through the plastic wrap with a neat little tool Casper provides. Then the mattress starts to expand. It emits a drawn-out sigh, as if emerging from deep hibernation. It puffs out slowly but purposefully, a languid foam leviathan that almost seems to have a heartbeat.
The customers in these videos chirp with delight. They hop onto their new beds like kids diving into a ball pit. They plunge their noses into the foam and lie still, limbs splayed. It is clear the mattress obeys the universal laws of presents: (1) the bigger the box, the better; and (2) If the gift grows even bigger once opened, that’s even better! You could satisfy these constraints with a malamute puppy — or a giant block of foam.
But here’s the thing. Depending on how you count, somewhere between 50 and 100 companies are eager to ship a mattress straight to your house. It’ll even arrive in a handsome, huggable box. “Everyone thinks they can start a mattress company. It’s relatively easy to do,” says Ricky Joshi, a cofounder of Saatva, a startup whose mattress does not fold up into a box (and whose company, he says, was more challenging to build). Once you’ve lined up the right machinery, you could whip together a new mattress in about a minute, according to another person I spoke to.