MattressFirm’s new marketing idea is both brilliant and wrong

The British advisory body The Sleep Council coined the phrase ‘junk sleep’ in 2007 after looking at the results of a poll it conducted of 1,000 teenagers from the UK. The poll of 1,000 youngsters aged 12 to 16 found that 30% managed just 4 to 7 hours sleep as opposed to the recommended 8 or 9 hours. Almost a quarter said they fell asleep more than once a week while watching TV, listening to music, or using other electronic gadgets.

Here’s another article in 2007, from Computerworld, using the same phrase and linking it to electronic gadgets usage.

Remember: this was way back in 2007, when the internet was fairly nascent (Facebook opened to the public in 2006, Twitter launched in 2006, for context) and the smartphone technology was at its infancy (the first iPhone went on sale in June 2007).

The Sleep Council’s study defined ‘junk sleep’ as “sleep that is of neither the length nor quality that it should be in order to feed the brain with the rest it needs to perform properly”.

There are two kinds of literal connections between ‘junk sleep’ and the more popular junk – ‘junk food’.

One, junk food too fills your stomach but does not offer the right kind of nutrition the body needs to perform properly! So, in junk sleep, like in junk food, the duration of sleep, is not the indicator of good quality sleep.

And two, previous studies suggest that people who do not get enough sleep are more likely to be overweight or obese. UK scientists found sleep deprivation led to hormonal changes which told the body to eat sugary or starchy food to provide an energy boost – that is, junk food!

The Sleep Council repeated the study in 2013 (PDF) with 5,007 UK adults and came to the same conclusion, largely. The 2013 study too referred to the 2007 study where they had first coined that term: “The Sleep Council has coined the term ‘Junk Sleep’ to describe the impact that entertainment gadgets such as mobile phones, tablets, and TVs are having on our sleep.”

Elsewhere in the 2013 study, The Sleep Council, among all the other reasons that affect sleep, added that a comfortable bed is one of the reasons and that they recommend that we should change our beds once every 7 years. But, the bed is not the primary factor for ‘junk sleep’ – it is one of the many factors, led prominently by electronic devices.

Now, in 2021, a mattress firm, the MattressFirm (both puns, by me, and by the brand, unintended) has conveniently appropriated ‘junk sleep’!

The brand started their campaign without that phrase, actually.

In a full-page ad in The Wall Street Journal on July 17th, the brand announced the impact of poor sleep – “affecting our output at work. It’s impacting the health of our everyday lives. Did you know that sleeping less than six hours a night doubles the risk of a car crash and may impair your judgment like alcohol does? Imagine if two out of three of us were operating under the influence. Imagine if it was your nanny. Your surgeon. Your pilot.”

But on July 21st, the brand, along with the ad agency Droga 5, went to town headlining a new campaign titled ‘Junk sleep’. The ad featured actor Liev Schreiber with a quirky script showcasing the impact of ‘junk sleep’.

To be sure, the phrase is really catchy and easy to understand. It connects immediately and has more emotion/feeling than just ‘poor sleep’ or ‘bad sleep’. The word ‘junk’ brings to mind junk food and our minds immediately connects, “Oh, like junk food, but for my sleep? That’s bad!!”.

But, take a look at Droga 5’s work in the ads!

It’s funny and makes fantastic use of a really catchy phrase!

But the campaign also appropriates the phrase previously used specifically to denote the effect of electronic gadgets in our bedrooms, on our sleep!

The first two lines in the main ad are literally: “We’ve got a problem, America! Junk sleep! It’s what you get from a bed that isn’t right for you”. From there, they continue on the effects of having poor sleep on our behavior and day-to-day actions. This is where the campaign mines most of its humor.

There is nothing even remotely related to electronic gadgets affecting our sleep in MattressFirm’s new campaign! They have willfully ignored the most important reason for junk sleep and picked one that is convenient to sell their product.

This is, however, understandable – they are in the business of selling mattresses, and for the brand, poor sleep could also be alleviated through good quality mattresses (made by MattressFirm, of course).

But, the brand is introducing ‘junk sleep’ to its audiences. In doing so, they are opening a larger conversation about ‘junk sleep’. So, to isolate only the role of the mattress as the reason for ‘junk sleep’ is both disingenuous and wrong.

In associating ‘junk sleep’ with only mattresses, the brand is not being entirely honest with its buyers. The original report, and many reports and studies after that, have asserted that the use of electronic gadgets (mainly the smartphone) is a major reason for our poor quality sleep.

Of course, the quality of the mattress and pillow matters too, but they are not the most critical reason. If the agency had framed the campaign around ‘junk sleep’ as a broad umbrella of causes among which the quality of mattress and pillow were one, that seems a lot more honest and helpful.

But, while saying that, I do understand why the agency and the brand went with what they eventually did. The aim was to offer a straight line between ‘junk sleep’ and ‘mattress’ (hence ‘MattressFirm’). The simple idea is to make you go – “Junk sleep? Think MattressFirm!”.

It’s a marketing win, no doubt. But, it doesn’t do justice to the users the brand is trying to attract.