Buying (into) sleep apps

By: Antoinette Mary Fage-Butler (Aarhus University)

August 2017



Many of us experience poor sleep from time to time. As we toss and turn, we are likely to recall the many times in our lives we were told about the importance of getting sufficient sleep in order to be happy, healthy and productive, and that we have an obligation both to ourselves and to others to be “well-slept”.

As with many other aspects of our lives that are deemed to be functioning less well, apps have been produced to help those who suffer from poor sleep. Sleep apps typically include “sonic therapies” such as nature sounds, white noise and meditations. “Smart” alarms monitor your sleep to identify the best time in your sleep cycle to wake you up. Sleep trackers provide quantitative information about the duration of your sleep and sleep cycle patterns. Bedtime reminders are also a feature of some sleep apps.

There is increasing interest amongst the research community in the sociocultural significance of health apps, of which sleep apps are an example, particularly as health apps are gaining in popularity and uptake, with a minimum of one health app estimated to be present on every second smartphone by 2018. One aspect that is valuable to explore with respect to the sociocultural significance of sleep apps is the marketing of these apps. Marketing is not simply a case of representing a particular product in the best possible way. It also has to do with addressing potential consumers in such a way that the product on offer seems a natural, irresistible choice. The supposition behind critical marketing theory is that potential consumers are likely to seize upon a product if they recognise themselves in the image of the user that is projected in the marketing of the product – which is in turn, of course, perfectly aligned with the product itself. The marketing of sleep apps is no exception. The idea behind the marketing of these apps is that we identify with the characteristics of the sleep app user presented in sleep app marketing communication and end up installing the app.

The marketing communication of products such as sleep apps is important to study for a number of reasons. First, marketing can influence identity and behaviour. If we identify with the projected representations of the app user, we are not only likely to define ourselves in relation to the identities that promote certain consumption habits but will also produce behaviours associated with those identities. Second, as marketing influences sales, it is relevant to explore the marketing communication of apps to understand a potential mechanism behind the increasing digitisation of our culture. Third, we are likely to find traces of the senders’ intentions in marketing communication. Apps remain a largely unregulated area, which makes critical investigation of the marketing of apps all the more relevant.

If we look at the representation of the sleep app user in the marketing of sleep apps, certain patterns appear.

The sleep app user is represented in sleep app marketing communication as struggling to keep on top of things, as the pace of modern living creates a hectic, stressful environment that negatively affects sleep. As people do not get enough sleep to maximise the quality of their health, they need help, which sleep apps promise to provide, as they are routinely described as using the latest in technological know-how and neuroscientific insights. The sleep app user is represented as compliant, as he/she should respond to apps’ reminders to go to bed. The sleep app user is also represented as being susceptible to suggestion by the sensory features of sleep apps, which include sound and lighting effects. Further suggestibility is evident in describing the sleep app user as prone to being affected by hypnotherapy and meditation. Many sleep apps display statistics, figures and graphs of app users’ sleep patterns, reducing aspects of their sleep to numbers. Recommended sleep durations are often cited in the marketing of sleep apps, and potential sleep app users can compare themselves to this norm. The sleep app user is often represented in marketing communication as being dissatisfied with their current less-than-optimal sleep and health, and as being motivated to achieve self-optimisation by tackling unhealthy behaviours.

What emerges is a particular view of the sleep app user that is behaviourist (people behave in certain ways because they respond to external stimuli). The sleep app user may be represented as weak-willed and worn out, but such weaknesses can be compensated for by the technical, almost prosthetic, assistance that sleep apps provide.

Findings from sociocultural research such as those just presented have practical value, including the following:

  • They help us to understand better the mechanisms that are used to market sleep apps. Similar patterns may also be evident in the marketing of other health-related apps, but that needs to be investigated further.
  • Marketing communication is about creating a situation where the product that is being marketed is difficult to resist. Understanding how marketing works in concrete examples can be helpful if we want to resist it.
  • The findings gleaned above provide insights into digital culture, particularly in relation to how apps are justified as software to be integrated into our phones and our lives.
  • The findings help raise critical questions about the ethics of marketing apps

Health apps are increasingly popular and have been described as empowering, as app users focus on their health, using technology for support. However, concerns have been expressed about their effectiveness, whether they function merely as placebos, and whether they may, in fact, be doing the app user more harm than good. The fact that sleep apps represent an alternative to sleeping pills may make them seem desirable, but there are also concerns that they may be leading to an unhealthy obsession with sleep. Further concerns have been raised about what is happening to the data that are gathered through apps, and the uses to which they could potentially be put. The main focus of this commentary has been on the sociocultural implications of the marketing of sleep apps, what it means for our understandings of ourselves, the technology we use and the world around us. As health apps such as sleep apps become an increasingly integral part of our human existence, it is important to reflect critically on their sociocultural impact and engage in open, public discussions on this topic.


This short piece is based on the findings of a larger study that will be published in a book called Metric Culture: Ontologies of Self-Tracking Practices (2018), edited by Btihaj Ajana and published by Emerald.