“Let’s all experience ... something ... together,” Zoe Kravitz whispers at the start of Michelob Ultra’s 2019 Super Bowl ad.
Kravitz is alone on an island with the company’s new light beer, called Pure Gold. Pure Gold is “beer ... in its organic form,” she also whispers. She clacks her fingernails on the glass bottle, pops off the top with a satisfying click, listens to the bubbles fizz, and smiles serenely.
It’s ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response), a type of video full of sounds that evoke texture and feeling to create a calming or lightly pleasurable effect. (Not a sex thing!) An internet trend that started about 10 years ago, ASMR is all about sound combinations that elicit physical responses — most commonly a tingling in the spine or across the scalp. It’s spread like wildfire on YouTube, where the biggest channels have millions of subscribers, and their creators can make a living off churning the stuff out. Tonight, it’s at the Super Bowl, but it was not so long ago that ASMR was just another internet curiosity, unlikely to resonate with 100 million viewers.
Vox’s German Lopez explained the odd sensation that birthed the YouTube genre back in 2015:
ASMR is the term for the sensation people get when they watch stimulating videos or take part in other activities — usually ones that involve personal attention. Many people describe the feeling as “tingles” that run through the back of someone’s head and spine. Others say the feeling is deeply relaxing, and can even cause them to fall asleep.
Lopez traced the videos’ popularity from a YouTube channel called Gentle Whispering — 1.6 million subscribers as of this writing — back to 2009. That’s when the channel’s creator, Maria, started looking for videos featuring soft, somehow tactile, or otherwise immersive sounds that would soothe her. She gave shape to the early online community around ASMR, which now includes all sorts of things: whispering, scratching, gargling, using a hair dryer for hours on end.
In 2012, clinical neurologist Steven Novella described the science behind it, specifically addressing why there are so many different types of ASMR video, and why individual people have such varying responses:
Perhaps ASMR is a type of seizure. Seizures can sometimes be pleasurable, and can be triggered by these sorts of things.
Or, ASMR could just be a way of activating the pleasure response. Vertebrate brains are fundamentally hardwired for pleasure and pain — for positive and negative behavioral feedback. We are rewarded with a pleasurable sensation for doing things and experiencing things that increase our survival probability, and have a negative or painful experience to make us avoid harmful behavior or warn us about potential danger or injury. Over evolutionary time a complex set of reward and aversion feedbacks have developed.
In other words, our response to ASMR may just be quirks of our brains, left over from a time when we needed it to be attuned to more subtle indicators from the physical world. Apparently, now we can use those instincts to more fully enjoy a beer bottle rolling across a desk in the hand of a famous actress.
ASMR has only moved closer and closer to the mainstream in the past few years, notably with a series of celebrity interviews conducted by W magazine. Eva Longoria was first, in August 2016 — that video has 1.8 million views as of writing. Another, published in December 2017, starred Jake Gyllenhaal and was briefly a meme because of its odd conceit (bubble wrap!) and his even odder comments (“I woke up and I had no text messages because I have no friends and then I looked at my emails and sure enough, they were empty.”) Cardi B, Kate Hudson, Gigi Hadid, Gal Gadot, and other A-listers have also done ASMR videos for W magazine.
So it’s been a super-popular genre of video for some time, and this isn’t the first time a celebrity or brand has played with it. But ASMR achieved true cross-platform dominance in 2018 — showing up on the year-end highlight roundups for YouTube, Instagram, Tumblr, and even Pornhub. And now what once seemed like a curious little niche interest has made it to the most-watched live TV event of the year.