What does it mean when viral products exist to calm us down?
Two Kickstarter campaigns between the fall of 2016 and the spring of 2017 set out with relatively modest goals: Each intended to raise around $20,000 to create products that claimed to relieve stress. Instead, both made millions and ended up helping to create an entire economy out of the treatment of anxiety with simple items.
The first, the Fidget Cube, raised nearly $6.5 million and predicated the most omnipresent toy trend of the following year, the fidget spinner. The second, the Gravity Blanket, raised $4.7 million with the promise of a better night’s sleep.
Neither went viral because a corporate behemoth like Mattel or Amazon decided to blindly diagnose the entire country with anxiety — they became so popular because regular people came across a video and donated with the belief that the devices might actually work.
Both, however, helped give rise to the growing anxiety economy, composed of adult coloring books, aromatherapy vapes, essential oils, and other products designed to calm us down. And though these items often have little, if any, scientific data supporting whether they really “work,” their explosive popularity sends a clear message: Americans are anxious as hell, and we’re trying to buy our way out of the problem.
Anxiety is now the most common mental illness in the US
Anxiety is quite possibly the defining characteristic for not only my own generation, but everyone alive at this particular time in history. It is already the most common mental health disorder in the US, affecting 18.1 percent of Americans each year and nearly one-third of Americans over their lifetimes, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America and the National Institute of Mental Health. And it’s quickly getting worse among college students: The American College Health Association found in its annual survey that in 2011, half of undergraduates reported they felt “overwhelming anxiety.” By 2017, 61 percent did.
There are plenty of places to point fingers: your phone, the president, climate change, the recession, FOMO, divorce, social media, student debt, terrorism, the 24-hour news cycle, the economy, “the economy,” living farther from family, toxins in your gut, too many choices, too little sleep, too little sex. Or maybe we’re just overdiagnosing anxiety and actually, everything’s fine.
Unfortunately for the millions who do suffer from anxiety, everything is not fine. Though the disorder may be affecting a growing number of people, finding suitable care is increasingly difficult due to funding cuts for both treatment services and research programs and a generally broken health care system.
So it makes sense that more people are turning to digital therapists, meditation apps, and even tampon brands in lieu of access to medical care. Media companies have been built around the mental health crisis, while videos designed to calm us down go viral. Even our most primitive need — sleeping — has somehow become a fun, sexy industry.
As a member of that near-one-third of Americans with an anxiety disorder, none of it surprises me. My desk is filled with random bouncy, squishy, or clicky objects that have no use other than being futzed with, and cataloging them all makes me feel like a person who is laughably unfit for modern life — particularly when I live in New York, one of the most stressful cities on the planet. But it also makes me the Platonic ideal of a consumer of our era’s most marketable products.
The case of the fidget spinner
Denver brothers Mark and Matthew McLachlan were tinkering with the idea for a few years: It would be a small toy, one that wouldn’t look out of place in the average office, that workers could click, flip, and spin. It would be intended not to help them escape the monotony of cubicle life but rather to give them something to fiddle with discreetly in order to better focus on actual work.
In September 2016, that idea became the Fidget Cube, which ended up becoming the 10th most funded project on the site of all time.
That was thanks to a few factors: a slick, well-produced satirical video that went viral when major Facebook pages like NowThis and Unilad began sharing it, a near-universal message (most of us have experienced the urge to fidget), and the novelty of an entirely new kind of product. After all, as Matthew explained to Vox over email, this was a time when “the phrase ‘fidget toy’ was not a household expression.”
The spinning toy that was to take over classrooms was not the same one shown in the McLachlan brothers’ viral video. Due to trouble with manufacturers thanks to the unexpectedly massive scale of the Kickstarter campaign, the official Fidget Cube was plagued with delays, by which time the market had already been flooded with knockoffs.
Plus, there was already a cheaper toy ready to take its place: the fidget spinner, developed in the early ’90s by a Florida inventor named Catherine Hettinger. She had an autoimmune disorder that caused muscle weakness, and with a 7-year-old daughter at home, she wanted to create a toy that could distract and soothe young children.
After shopping the spinner to multiple toy brands, she secured a patent and even had a meeting with Hasbro, though the toy giant ultimately decided against producing it and let the patent expire in 2005. Later, variations of the fidget spinner were marketed by small manufacturers as therapeutic aids for children with ADHD, anxiety, and autism, but by late 2016, versions of spinning toys made with materials like stainless steel and titanium were being sold for as much as $199.
Even if the Fidget Cube had lost some of its edge in the market, by Christmas 2016, Forbes claimed fidget spinners as the “must-have office toy for 2017,” and in April 2017, they became the second-most-popular item bought on Amazon, right after the free 30-day Prime trial. Though it’s impossible to say how many have been sold, the payment platform Square, which is often used by smaller independent retailers, noted that while in January and February of 2017, only about 30 fidget spinners were purchased each month, by the end of May, 151,241 were. The market research firm NPD estimates that at least 19 million were sold, with others claiming more than 50 million.
Spinners were a massive hit with children: They’re fun and cheap, and you can do cool tricks with them on YouTube. But they certainly owe the cube that came before them a big thanks for helping fidget toys rise out of their clinical niche.
The case of the weighted blanket
Around the same time, another Kickstarter was blowing up. In the fall of 2016, the small media company Futurism, which covers science and technology, was attempting to build a new revenue model in the face of an increasingly competitive pool of advertiser dollars.
The newly created product team noticed that articles about the science of sleep and stress were getting a lot of traffic. In the process of brainstorming ideas, the team tossed out the idea of a weighted blanket. It would be around 10 percent of the user’s bodyweight (available in 15-, 20-, and 25-pound versions) and consist of a polyester cover atop a cotton inner shell filled with plastic pellets, providing the weight.
Though they’d been around for decades, weighted blankets were, until then, generally used to treat children with autism or adults with PTSD, among other disorders. Futurism’s prototype, called the Gravity Blanket, was different: Like the Fidget Cube, it took a previously niche clinical tool and adopted the aesthetics of a slick startup to market it to a mainstream audience with the promise that it could relieve stress and anxiety.
“It felt like an interesting time to bring a physical product that wasn’t necessarily pharmacy-based or med-tech based, but just a really simple solution to a bigger population, and part of the strategy was to elevate the look and feel of it, too,” explains Mike Grillo, the president of Futurism’s product division. “Anything you saw prior to Gravity that was a weighted blanket was very clinical-looking, and I think would turn off the general consumer, so we worked hard to find the right fabric and came up with a pattern and really elevated it, both from a product perspective and then from a brand perspective.”
On top of its $4.7 million Kickstarter campaign, to date, the company has sold more than 70,000 blankets at a retail price of $249. Gravity succeeded thanks to similar factors as the Fidget Cube: good design, universal appeal (who hasn’t had trouble falling asleep?), and the product’s novelty. And it too was succeeded by many knockoffs on sites like Amazon.
Meanwhile, other startups were creating conversations in the mental health space, like TalkSpace (the chat-based therapy app) or Calm (the meditation app whose goal is to become the “Nike for the mind”). “They’re more tech-focused, of course, not necessarily physical products, but all of these non-pharmacological, non-medical offerings for people to relieve their stress,” says Grillo.
There is also the fact that this was in 2016, arguably the most anxiety-inducing year in recent cultural memory (besides, well, the year after, or maybe the current one). Indeed, Futurism came up with the idea for the Gravity Blanket just a month after the US presidential election, in December 2016. When I ask whether it was an attempt to capitalize on the cultural moment, Grillo agrees, to an extent. “It truly felt like it was the right place, right time,” he says. “I wouldn’t say, ‘Oh, we have to hit this while the iron’s hot,’ but it certainly felt like the right environment to go out into the market with something like this.”
To claim that the explosion of anxiety-quelling products was a direct effect of the election would be an oversimplification of trends that were already in place, however. Anxiety disorders among the general population were already on the rise, and mental illness was already becoming increasingly more socially acceptable to discuss. Plus, brands like Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop had piqued the cultural interest in non-medical and alternative forms of treatment.
But the year was a turning point that helped create the groundwork for these sorts of startups to take off.
The ethics of treating anxiety with stuff
With millions of dollars to be made in the anxiety product economy, there arises the question of whether anyone actually should. One woman who has weighed this more than most is Meredith Arthur. She’d been working at a series of increasingly dysfunctional San Francisco startups while at the same time experiencing worsening migraines. It took five therapists and a specialized clinic before a neurologist told her, a few days before her 40th birthday, that she had generalized anxiety disorder. Like many who finally receive the diagnosis they’d always unconsciously known they had, she felt a deep sense of relief.
“I immediately knew it was true,” she says. “[My neurologist] picked me up off the earth, turned me around the other way, and set me back down. I was like, ‘Oh, okay. That’s what it is.’ Now, of course, because I have generalized anxiety disorder, what did I do next? Okay, research.”
That research eventually formed the foundation of what would become Beautiful Voyager, the online community she built for “overthinkers, perfectionists, and people pleasers.” When she launched the site in 2015, she recalls people receiving the idea with subtle condescension. “People were quiet. There was some, ‘Good for you, Meredith!’” she says with a laugh. But by the time the fall of 2016 rolled around, she noticed a shift in the way people talked about mental health.
“It was a watershed moment, where everyone was like, ‘It’s okay to be completely distraught.’ If I get in deep about it, I think of it as ego disillusion. I had to get over myself.”
In order to cover the cost of running the website, which also includes paying writers, Arthur has a retail section on her site, where people can buy items like weighted blankets from a seamstress in Illinois, coloring books, sleep masks, and a millennial-pink pillbox. As far as she’s aware, it’s one of the only communities/marketplaces devoted to people with anxiety, which gives her a heightened sense of responsibility to its members.
As a matter of principle, she’s upfront about where the profits go: There’s an entire section on the site devoted to the topic (she keeps 10 percent of sales; the rest goes to the manufacturer), and an updated list of every single item sold on the site. “That’s the only way I feel good about it,” she says. “Otherwise, you’re shifty. You’re trying to make money off people.”
The million-dollar question: do they even work?
Here is the truth that goes largely unspoken in the growing space where capitalism meets mental health: None of it actually solves the underlying problem, even if it helps assuage the symptoms. Last May, Gravity was forced to change the language on its Kickstarter, which claimed the blanket could be “used to treat a variety of ailments, including insomnia, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, as well as circumstantial stress and prolonged anxiety,” after the news site STAT questioned Kickstarter about the claims, which appeared to go against recommendations from the US Food and Drug Administration. The new version simply said that the blanket could be “used” for those conditions.
And what very little research has been done on the benefits of fidget toys is largely predicated on the act of fidgeting itself rather than the specific tools used to do so. As Vox wrote at the height of spinner mania last spring:
There is some evidence that encouraging children with ADHD to squirm and move their limbs can help direct their focus rather than making them sit still. But that study looked at kids’ physical activity, not a small spinning device that barely requires any movement. And kids without ADHD didn’t benefit from the extra squirming.
Dr. Anna Lembke, a clinician and associate professor of psychiatry at Stanford University, explains that to date, nobody really knows for sure how these products work, besides the fact that they can help distract us.
“What’s key with these fidget toys is that they are physical,” she says. “So by engaging this hand motion, we reconnect with our bodies, which often has a calming phenomenon. You can achieve the same thing through exercise, right? People achieve a similar thing through meditation. The mechanism is slightly different, but basically what’s happening in meditation, for example, is you’re focusing on the breath. In focusing on the breath, you’re focusing on your body. And your physical functions are redirecting your focus away from these abstract thoughts that can be so debilitating.”
So, yes, meditation apps may help us meditate, and meditation may reduce anxiety. Weighted blankets may calm us down long enough to fall and stay asleep, which will help us feel better the next day. And fidget devices can distract us so that instead of ruminating on negative thoughts, we’re expending mental energy on something physical.
But no product will solve the underlying causes of anxiety, or ADHD, or obsessive-compulsive disorder, or autism, whether it’s a $5 gas-station fidget spinner or a $250 blanket meticulously designed and focus-grouped by advertising professionals. That’s a far bigger task, involving: therapy (often difficult to access), medication (often expensive), or complete lifestyle overhauls that involve fitting exercise and healthier habits into our daily lives (often really, really hard).
So a weighted blanket it is. “We’re not understanding how to deal with [mental health]. Instead, we’re throwing products at it,” says Beautiful Voyager’s Arthur. “It’s very American.”
To be fair to fidget spinners, however, it can be difficult to treat mental health issues even with the tools backed by the best scientific evidence, including the ones Lembke uses with her patients: cognitive behavioral therapy, exposure therapy, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs, such as Lexapro or Prozac), and lifestyle changes like diet, exercise, or creating a more heavily structured schedule.
When I started therapy a year and a half ago, I expected my therapist to challenge my methods of fidgeting and physical distractions, developed over a lifetime, as unhelpful ways to avoid facing my underlying issues. Instead, she ended up doing the opposite: Over the course of a few months, she gave me a strip of wax-like putty to morph into shapes, a large stone to hold as a means of separating the concept of my anxiety from my actual self, and a smaller one for little reminders. It turns out that having the stuff did, in fact, help a bit, if only for a few moments at a time.
So when I first heard the term “fidget spinner” in the early months of 2017, I knew it was going to be extremely my shit. The first time I spun one, at a bar in Brooklyn, I joked that I’d never connected with a human baby as much as I’d connected with this. I rapidly acquired five of them.
But here’s the problem with using “fidgeting” as a marketing strategy: As any true fidgeter knows, you don’t need to spend money on a new object to futz with — objects simply appear, and you fidget with them. By the time the spinner craze was over, I’d long replaced them with a pile of other gizmos.
Yet the space only appears to be growing. Gravity, for instance, was able to expand its line to include melatonin spray, weighted sleep masks, a cooling duvet, a collection of infrared-ray-emitting loungewear that promises to help with muscle recovery, and an upcoming “mindful alarm clock,” which lets you sleep with your phone outside your bedroom but still connect to your phone so that a select few people will be able to reach you in an emergency.
The Fidget Cube and the Gravity Blanket raised millions of dollars because they diagnosed people with a simple problem: Have you ever felt a weird desire to fidget with random objects? Of course! Do you have trouble falling asleep? Who doesn’t?
Now that many more of us are aware — that we’re stressed, that we’re anxious, that we’re not getting enough sleep, that anxiety is really bad and will doom us to an early death so we should really take care of it, which of course makes us even more anxious about our own anxiety — it makes sense that our immediate impulse is to buy stuff that promises to deal with it so that we don’t have to. And if fidget spinners and weighted blankets haven’t quite been doing it for you, chances are there will be even more anxiety-quelling doodads to spend your money on in the very near future.
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