By: Mel Quist
If you’re like me, you most likely pay little attention to most of the advertising you hear throughout the day. From watching TV to listening to podcasts to sitting in waiting rooms, we experience countless hours of audio advertising each week without thinking much of it. But one ad piqued my interest recently as I listened to internet music streamer Pandora. Standing in stark contrast to the obnoxious jingles and frenetic voiceovers we’re used to, was a 30-second spot for Subway featuring a woman whispering in a monotonous manner about the restaurant’s $4.99 footlong sub special. Whereas most ads fit seamlessly between the content we’re listening to, this one is almost startling in its initial silence. The first time I heard it, I was tempted to check my internet connection and volume. It’s pleasant and a bit unsettling in its serene simplicity, but it forced me to stop for a moment and think about what I was hearing. For many this technique might seem unorthodox, but for millennials or those who spend a lot of time online, it probably sounds familiar—it’s a play on the recent internet phenomenon called ASMR.
Defined as an experience characterized by a static-like tingling on the skin that typically begins on the scalp and moves down the back and upper spine, ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response) is often described by those who experience the sensation as tingles or a feeling that is deeply relaxing. There are many reasons viewers frequent ASMR videos: to help with difficulty sleeping, to ease symptoms of anxiety, or simply for entertainment. Although there is no official science or research behind the phenomenon, which is widely considered to have been born on the internet at the start of the decade, an impassioned online community of (mostly young) ASMR advocates has emerged, racking up millions of views on popular ASMR YouTube channels.
It’s difficult to describe an ASMR video for someone who has never seen one. The categories are almost endless and the sensations induced by these sensory videos vary greatly from person to person – many feel nothing at all. “Triggers,” as they are known, can include things as mundane as tapping a tabletop, shaking a water bottle, and using scissors to cut paper. Some are similar to white noise, with steady, repetitious sounds. Others are more elaborate, with roleplaying, costumes, and green screens. One prominent feature of most ASMR videos is whispering, with the speaker hovering over a microphone, describing their actions, speaking with accents, and making repetitive noises with their mouths.
As with most pop cultural phenomena, the popularity of ASMR appeared to come out of nowhere, but as it gained a following online, it caught the attention of the marketing world. Brands as diverse as KFC, Dove Chocolate, and fashion magazine W have created ASMR-style videos in an attempt to appeal to a younger audience. IKEA launched a series of advertisements called “Oddly IKEA” last year, which consists of six videos that, together, form a 25-minute ASMR experience. The videos show a variety of items in a college dorm room with a narrator whispering details about each item as our senses are stimulated with the sounds of smoothing bed sheets and desk lamp tapping. Information such as product options and prices are also presented. The video went viral with over 2 million views, and according to IKEA, it paid off as the company experienced a 4.5% increase in sales in store and a 5.1% increase online during the advertising campaign.
You may have seen McDonald’s recently released ASMR campaign called “Speechless,” which promotes the new 100% fresh beef Quarter Pounder with 30-second commercials starring celebrities like Charles Barkley and John Goodman sitting in a McDonalds restaurant eating a Quarter Pounder in silence. Others include Applebees, which created an hourlong ASMR video of a steak being cooked on a grill, and Capital One, which is currently airing a popular commercial with Jennifer Garner whispering in a library.
Although some companies are choosing Hollywood stars to appeal to a wide audience, many advertisers are interested in working directly with some of the most influential ASMR creators (ASMRtists) with a dedicated following than attempt to produce videos of their own. A recent BBC article profiled popular ASMRtist Lily Whispers, who is one of the purveyors of ASMR content on YouTube. With over 200,000 followers, Whispers produces two to three videos per week in addition to her fulltime job in digital marketing. Many of these videos feature a brand promotion, which Savannah Newton, a senior talent manager for digital talent agency Ritual Network says can pay between $1,000 to $3,000 per campaign. Newton, who works with a number of ASMRtists, says the relationships creators forge with their audiences has left brands eager to sponsor personalities to promote their products.
The demographics for the ASMR audience are diverse, but it does skew young. Currently, there are approximately 5.2 million ASMR videos on YouTube and it is one of the website’s most searched topics. According to Google, both men and women view ASMR content regularly. Well over half of the audience is comprised of 16 to 30-year-olds; however, there are signs of growing widespread appeal. The recent interest in soft-spoken PBS painter Bob Ross is an indicator of ASMR going mainstream and appealing to broad audiences. Although there are a number of popular video topics, beauty and fitness are currently the most sought after. It is also important to note that Google searches increase around 10:30 p.m., indicating people are using ASMR for relaxation and to assist with sleeping. Influencer Marketing says that ASMR-influenced marketing could grow to be a $5-10 billion dollar industry within five years.
There is not much official research regarding the effectiveness of ASMR and why it has caught on so quickly, but many professionals are linking a lack of intimacy young people are experiencing with the pervasive role of technology in our lives. People are now looking to digital media to obtain things we used to receive in person from another human being. Whispers says her audience is mostly women, with many between 14 and 18 years old. Like other vloggers and social media influencers, Whispers and ASMRtists are seen as role models and virtual friends by their many followers. In the past we would turn to a parent, friend, or spouse in times of stress or anxiety. ASMR is a convenient and reliable source to fill that void for many people.
I have been following the rise of ASMR for a few years, and I have to admit that I was skeptical that it could make a significant difference for people with anxiety or sleep problems. But earlier this year a mutual on social media who has tinnitus and uses ASMR videos to help him fall asleep was inspired to start his own channel, so I decided to check it out. His videos are fairly typical of other ASMRtists: whispering, liquids, screwing caps and lids, even reading in Swedish. Although I can’t say I am an everyday viewer like many, the videos are unconventionally relaxing, and I find myself using them to fall asleep. Through social media shares and the peculiar nature of the videos, I can see how ASMR would generate interest and develop a dedicated following. Whether you find it works for you or not, there is a growing, young, and engaged audience that is dedicated. It will be interesting to see where it goes from here.
Image Source: Image Source: LauraLemurex ASMR
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