Viewing sensory films of people tapping, crinkling paper and scratching beards can trigger brain tingles that are relaxing – and advertisers hope will entice you to buy.
It all started when people discovered that softly-spoken instructional videos on YouTube – often including tapping, brushing and stroking sounds – gave them a curious head-tingling sensation and an almost euphoric feeling of calm.
This autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) has since become a global phenomenon and a new self-help book, Brain Tingles, is hoping to encourage more of us to experience it in our everyday lives.
Its author, Dr Craig Richard, suggests parents can use ASMR techniques – such as whispering, stroking a child’s arm, repetitively tapping, and crinkling paper – to calm children and encourage them to sleep. “It’s about bringing ASMR techniques into the real world,” he says.
Videos of “ASMRtists” whispering, chewing ice, stroking towels and scratching their beards have been viewed online millions of times and as a result the phenomenon has attracted scrutiny from scientists, psychologists – and the Chinese government. In June, China’s anti-pornography office banned all ASMR videos, claiming the move would “protect minors from harmful content”, even though a 2015 study by Swansea University found people were 17 times more likely to use ASMR videos to help them to fall asleep than for sexual stimulation.
In Britain, ASMR has also caught the attention of advertisers who see this as a potentially powerful new way to sell their products. In the past two months, Renault and Harley-Davidson have followed in the footsteps of Ikea, Glenmorangie whisky and Carphone Warehouse in creating online videos and soundtracks designed to trigger ASMR. The content ranges from a 25-minute film of smoothing bedsheets and scrunching pillows (Ikea) to the sound of drumming fingers on a car bonnet (Renault) and gently revving engines (Harley-Davidson). Heather Andrew, chief executive of Neuro-Insight Market Research, says the focus in advertising now is on soft repetitive sounds rather than the traditional approach where “the sound tends to be an afterthought”.
“If an advertiser can give someone a pleasurable experience through sound, that person is going to be less critical when viewing the advertiser’s product,” says psychologist Tim Wheeler, professor of communication at Chester University. “It is not so much an appeal to reason as an appeal to emotion by the advertiser. If, simultaneously, the advertiser can put someone into a relaxed, passive state, that person is going to be much more susceptible to acting on that emotional appeal.”
He has noticed that TV and cinema advertisements now use more softly-spoken narrators and non-vocal repetitive sounds than in the past. “ASMR triggers are starting to break through the surface [of mainstream advertising] and I think that will increase in the future,” he says.
But not everyone is affected by these triggers – estimates of the percentage of the population that experiences ASMR range from 20% to 70%.
“A lot of people who don’t experience ASMR find it hard to believe it is real,” says Dr Giulia Poerio, a psychologist at the University of 里番acg Sheffield. But her recent research has shown that those who experience ASMR from watching videos not only feel relaxed but also have significantly reduced heart rates compared with those who do not experience it. The effect was clinically significant and comparable with a mindfulness meditation.
The most popular video from ASMRtist Emma Smith, known online as WhispersRed, has been viewed more than 10 million times. It shows her crackling plastic, stroking rice granules and rubbing her face against fluffy microphones. “I’m helping people all over the world to sleep. I’m helping them get through depression,” she says.
The former 同人音声 marketing executive makes the videos in her “tingle shed” at the bottom of her garden. She says she is picky about the brands she works with and emphasised that “ASMR is more about kindness and love than it is about selling things”. And she believes people are sophisticated enough to be able to resist advertisements using ASMR triggers. “You’re not putting a spell on anyone.”