What do slime squishing, fabric folding, hair brushing, whispering, slow movements, light touch, crunching candy, tapping and softly scratching all have in common? They’re some of the most common tactile and audio-visual stimuli or ‘triggers’ that cause an Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR) in the estimated 20-50% of people lucky enough to get it. Including me.
ASMR is a spontaneous, incredibly pleasurable, tingly sensation that usually begins on the top of the head, working its way down the neck and shoulders, and sometimes even further afield. Usually accompanied by feelings of calmness, sleepiness and mild euphoria. ASMR is most likely to happen, if the triggers happen while someone calmly gives you focused attention. Those old enough to remember school nit nurses like me, often remember experiencing it during hair checks. Or while being soothed to sleep having your back gently stroked by a parent as a young child. And of course, different people have different triggers, but whispering and tapping are most common.
This video from New Yorker magazine is a great introduction.
ASMR started being discussed online in the late Noughts as people shared what they thought either everyone experienced or only they experienced, and the term coined in 2010 by cybersecurity expert Jennifer Allen. Allen was involved in what became the iconcic 2007 steadyhealth.com forum thread titled, “Weird sensation feels good” (more of that later). Around that time ASMR videos, made by ‘ASMRtists’ started appearing on YouTube from 2009. There are nearly 15 million videos on YouTube alone, not to mention tracks on platforms and apps like Audible, Spotify and Calm. Brands as diverse as Ariel India, Renault, IKEA and AXA Healthcare PPP (I got into it after we blogged about it back in 2017) have all got involved. KFC even has an entire website dedicated to it!
But why is ASMR so topical now? Sadly, as we might expect, nearly half of Brits report suffering from anxiety and stress due to the pandemic; it’s unsurprising that people are looking to things that can help them relax and sleep better. Consequently, uploads of ASMR-related YouTube videos have hit an all-time high according to Google, with ASMR consistently topping search interest in the past few months. Everything from being tucked in bed at night, to getting a massage, to having your hair done. And much more esoteric things besides (noting that the flipside of ASMR is thought to be misophonia or revulsion of certain noises, so don’t click if you don’t like hearing people eat! I can barely listen to a few seconds without shuddering and switching off).
And the science is now there to back up that it does work. Not just anecdotally but absolutely physically. A 2018 study from the University of Sheffield found people who experienced ASMR while watching ASMR videos, also had their heart rate drop 3.41 beats per minute, comparable to other stress-reduction techniques like mindfulness. Participants also showed significant increases in relaxation and feelings of social connection, and an increase in skin conductance, meaning that ASMR creates a real physiological impact. Other studies have found that ASMR can temporarily help alleviate depression and even help people cope with chronic pain, and MRI scan research shows it illuminates the parts of the brain associated with reward and emotional bonding.
So it’s clear that ASMR has a unique and potentially powerful role to play for brands during this time of acute stress and anxiety. Particularly as many people are living alone, entirely alone, and missing touch and intimacy, not to mention generally people missing their usual physical experiences at the hairdresser, massage therapist and more besides. Think brand partnerships with ASMRtists that are congruent with the brand: clothes folding for fashion, personal facial treatment for skincare brands, mukbang (eating videos) for food brands etc. Or sponsorship of ASMR events like the now online-only Swedish art exhibition ‘Weird sensation feels good’ (named after that very original forum thread!) or even making their own ASMR content. Beauty brands like Huda Beauty, Sephora, Milk Makeup, Tarte Cosmetics and Benefit have all posted ASMR content on Tik-Tok, Snapchat or Instagram since the start of the pandemic. And it makes perfect sense to create a really emotionally and physical connection with the consumer while they are in need. It really does beg the question, though, why aren’t consumer healthcare and wellness brands that play heavily in anxiety, sleep and immunity doing it too…