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Inside the Rise of the ASMR Commercial – Vulture

Photo: Michelob Ultra.

Nobody watches the Super Bowl for relaxation. But that’s what William Halligan got. It was February 3, and Halligan, a 72-year-old dentist, was watching the game with his wife, nieces, and nephews at his vacation home in California. During a commercial break, the dull roar of the football stadium fell to a hush. There was Zoë Kravitz, perched on a platform in the wilderness, whispering about beer. Halligan found himself lulled into a momentary trance.

“I went, Whoa! What is this? Look at this thing!” says Halligan. “I hit the rewind on our DVR and played it a couple more times.” His family was unimpressed, but Halligan was transfixed.

During the minute-long ad, Kravitz, set against a backdrop of stunning green mountains, lifts a bottle of Michelob Ultra Pure Gold, gently drums her fingernails against the bottle, and pours it into a glass, emphasizing the pleasant fizzing sounds. She raves about how “pure” the beer is, but her voice never rises above a whisper. Halligan’s interest was not in the beer —“I’m almost a teetotaler,” he says — so much as the sensation induced by the whispering. He describes it as a deep relaxation, not unlike the way he feels when using the guided meditation app Headspace.

This, of course, is what internet-savvy viewers would recognize as ASMR, or “autonomous sensory meridian response” — a pleasant, tingly sensation some people experience in the scalp or upper body as a result of quiet sounds or gentle touch. (Some experience it intensely, and others not at all; there seems to be a wide spectrum of response.) While the ASMR obsession has flourished in online spaces for the better part of a decade, the Michelob commercial signifies the latest — and largest — sign yet that advertisers are increasingly eager to capitalize on its popularity in mainstream settings. When VICE convinces Jeff Goldblum to whisper into a microphone for an audience of weirdos, it’s one thing. When Anheuser-Busch, the nation’s largest brewing company, devotes its chance to reach 100 million viewers to a glorified ASMR video, that’s something else.

“It’s a big deal,” says Melinda Lauw, the 26-year-old founder of Whisperlodge, an “ASMR spa” that provides live events for small groups of ASMR enthusiasts (the next event begins in Los Angeles on March 13). “People have been using ASMR to sell things for a while now, but this is really like someone putting millions of dollars to it. Which makes me think, perhaps it really is effective in selling things!”

Indeed, lately, major multinational brands, from Ikea to Renault, are taking a chance on commercials that whisper and tingle instead of shout. In 2018, McDonald’s released a video titled “ASMR with John Goodman,” in which the actor delivers an impassioned monologue about the fresh-beef Quarter Pounder in a close-miked whisper. Ikea’s approach was slower and certainly more relaxing: In the 25-minute video, a woman speaks in soothing tones as she stretches and taps on some of the company’s back-to-school projects. The resulting video makes duvet covers seem surprisingly sensual.

“You always want to be disruptive,” says Liz Taylor, the chief creative officer at FCB Chicago, the marketing agency that conceived the Michelob spot. “The Super Bowl is notoriously one of the loudest [events] — there’s explosions, there’s people screaming, there’s puppies and monkeys and babies. We wanted to be disruptive and thought, Could we turn our ads into experiences? Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could give 110 million people the chills at the same time?

Chills, tingles — whatever term you use, ASMR “triggers” can come in a variety of aural and tactile forms, from head massages to paper crinkling; whispering is especially popular. On YouTube, it has been a global phenomenon since the early 2010s, with more than 13 million videos now devoted to spreading the tingles. But Halligan had never heard of it before. “It definitely piqued my interest,” he says. After seeing the commercial, he Googled the phrase and started surfing ASMR videos on YouTube. He even put on a heart-rate monitor as a private experiment — and discovered that ASMR videos reduced his heart rate by about 10, and sometimes 15, bpm.

Halligan’s experience indicates how the commercialization of ASMR is bringing a niche phenomenon to the mainstream masses. Veteran ASMR YouTubers are cautiously optimistic. “You don’t want to see it bastardized,” says Ally Maque, a self-described “tingle technician” whose YouTube channel, “ASMRrequests,” boasts more than 500,000 subscribers. “You don’t want to see it exploited just for money. At the same time, I think it’s a good thing to have it represented in a mainstream way in a positive light.”

ASMR is a little like music. Its power is mysterious. It does not affect everyone the same way. It brings millions of people pleasure. And it can be lifted and used by advertisers in ways both tasteful and nefarious.

“Some fans will be dismayed that their band has gone mainstream,” says Craig Richard, a physiologist who has become a leading expert in ASMR research (and who served as an “ASMR consultant” for the Super Bowl ad). “Some fans will love to see their band get attention. I think that’s a good parallel to how people feel about ASMR being commercialized.”

The term “ASMR” dates back to 2010, but it would be another five years before the first ASMR-inspired commercial materialized. In late 2015, it arrived — not with a bang, but with a whisper, a crinkle of plastic, and the pleasant sounds of someone delicately biting into a piece of Dove chocolate. The clip was created by the agency BBDO Beijing on behalf of Dove, and it aired in China in two distinct versions: female and male whisperers, respectively. Both videos contain many of the hallmarks of ASMR YouTube, from the use of plastic sounds for pleasure rather than irritation to the gentle way the speaker seems to address you directly.

At the time, awareness of ASMR was just beginning to spread throughout the larger cultural consciousness. “If this video sends you into ecstasy,” Ad Age reported, “you’re experiencing a phenomenon known as ASMR.”

Other brands followed Dove’s lead. Food sounds became particularly ripe for tingles. In 2016, a Ritz Crackers ad brought an ASMR sensibility to the crunchy sounds of one individual cracker.  “Advertisers are realizing that this is becoming a part of our global culture,” says Richard. “There’s been a steady increase in searches for ASMR on Google trends since 2010. It’s not a fad. It’s not a temporary phenomenon. People are genuinely, long-term interested in ASMR.”

But advertisers don’t always know what they’re doing. When Applebee’s released a full-hour video of meat sizzling (that’s it — just the meat) and titled it “[ASMR] One Hour of Soothing Grill Sounds,” it felt like a reach. “If it’s disconnected from a human, then that’s not really ASMR,” says Richard, who founded the website ASMRUniversity.com, which tracks developments in the world of ASMR research. “It doesn’t mean it’s not oddly satisfying and relaxing. But ASMR really needs to have some kind of human component to it.”

Other ads are too jokey. Lauw bristles at the thought of the Grinch’s recent clip. “The Grinch just got really mean and angry at the end, and it wasn’t really ASMR.”

Anything abrasive can kill the mood. In his book, Brain Tingles, Richard suggests that there may be a link between the pleasurability of ASMR and the release of oxytocin when parents bond with their children. Both involve close personal attention and an all-consuming feeling of safety. Commercials strive for a similar effect — except the close attention is emanating from a person shilling a product. “When you see nature documentaries and there is one monkey sitting behind another monkey, grooming him — that’s an affiliative behavior,” Richard says. “The brain regions that are activated in moments like that between animals and humans are similar to the brain regions that are activated during ASMR.”

Fitting, then, that the marketers behind Michelob wanted consumers to associate the beer with a sense of nature and wellness. “When we were trying to introduce this organic beer to the masses, we wanted to find health and wellness trends,” says Taylor. “Some people go for a run, some people meditate, some people zone out to ASMR. It seemed like an amazing fit.” The goal, Taylor says, was to envision people at a Super Bowl party, leaning into the TV and wondering, “What was that?”

Once they hatched the idea, Taylor’s team at FCB began presenting different ways of incorporating ASMR. And they collected data points to bring to the client: 13 million YouTube videos, billions of views for top channels, and so on.

The next step was to present the idea to the Michelob marketing team. “Nobody shut it down,” Taylor says. “Some people were like, ‘I don’t know what this is. I gotta find out more.’” One person was mystified but spent the whole weekend researching ASMR.

“I was casually familiar,” says Azania Andrews, the VP of marketing at Michelob ULTRA. She had seen W magazine’s video series in which celebrities like Cardi B whisper into mics. “We spent a lot of time educating ourselves, understanding its popularity as a trend, before we decided to leverage its tactics.” When asked what ASMR has to do with beer, Andrews liberally drops terms like “macro-brew organic beer,” “brand positioning,” and “experiential marketing.” The idea seems to be that ASMR is pure and soothing and revitalizing, and so is this beer. “It’s something people use for relaxation. To manage stress,” Andrews says. “We thought that it connected in the world where Michelob ULTRA Pure Gold exists.”

By late fall, the ad agency had settled on bringing tingle to millions of Super Bowl viewers. They dove into research. But they needed an expert — an ASMR guru, if you will. They hired Richard, who literally wrote the book on the phenomenon, as an “ASMR consultant.”

During a series of phone and email conversations, Richard explained to the ad team what does and doesn’t constitute ASMR, and how to wield it effectively. “They wanted to understand how to create a genuine ASMR experience,” Richard says. “They didn’t want to just sprinkle in ASMR triggers, and they didn’t want to parody it. They wanted to create something that might actually trigger ASMR in some viewers.” For instance, when Richard heard that the ad was going to be set in a vast nature scene, he advised that nature sounds are not strong ASMR triggers. They can be relaxing, “but that’s not ASMR. Those are sounds mediated by a person.”

Eventually, Kravitz was selected to be that person. Why Kravitz? Who knows. Michelob apparently considered Kravitz a strong embodiment of its brand because she is health-conscious, but also “fun and laid-back.” In an interview with Elle, Kravitz described ASMR as “really interesting” but didn’t have too much to say about it.

The resulting commercial (which remains in circulation on TV and digital) has been received warmly by members of the ASMR community. Andrews notes with pride that it drew Twitter praise from YouTube personality “Gibi ASMR.” Maque, a.k.a. “ASMRrequests,” particularly liked that the ad steered clear of overt sexuality. “Zoë was not dressed in a way that suggests hypersexuality,” Maque says. “ASMR is such an intimate thing that it’s easy for people to associate it with sexuality, which is the furthest thing from what most of us are trying to achieve.” (Yes, ASMR porn is a thing, but ASMR is not inherently sexual — creators are often frustrated by this misconception.)

Understandably, Maque is wary of ASMR being incorporated less artfully. “If I saw it becoming this ugly marketing tool that’s used constantly, that would cheapen what we all do,” she says.

Meanwhile, as commercials embrace ASMR, ASMR is embracing product placement. YouTubers routinely partner with brands by featuring their products in ASMR videos. Lauw wonders when a major brand will, in turn, hire a well-known ASMR creator to star in a commercial instead of a celebrity. “That has not happened so far,” she says.

As for Halligan, that dentist in California? Forget the brands. He is just grateful to have learned about ASMR. In fact, he’s gotten in the habit of watching ASMR videos on YouTube several nights a week to unwind. “It’s fun, curiously relaxing, and interesting,” he says. “It beats going home and having a tequila and beer at the end of the day.”

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