Overstated but true: social media is a rabbit hole that leads to a treasure trove of the weird and marvelous. My choice of poison tends to be Instagram. A few years ago, I became mesmerised by clips of malleable, glittery slime being poked, prodded, popped and kneaded like dough. Watching each short video was oddly satisfying. It vividly brought back childhood memories of playing with gooey toys but there was more to the allure of these clips than nostalgia. Their effect was almost physical: a warm, pleasant sensation flowing from the base of my neck down to my shoulder blades. Searching for a name for this phenomenon under terms such as ‘tingling images’ and ‘satisfying images,’ I came across ASMR.
In case you’re wondering, ASMR isn’t some weird sexual fetish. (Though you’d be excused to think so, given some of the videos out there…) Otherwise known as Auto Sensory Meridian Response, it is defined as “an atypical sensory phenomenon involving electrostatic-like tingling sensations in response to certain sensory, primarily audio-visual, stimuli.” Tingleheads, as they are now known, report different sensitivities to varying sounds and visuals. Gentle whispering, the crinkling of crisp packets, or even role-playing videos of virtual haircuts and head massages count among the community’s triggers. There is a sizeable group of ASMR enthusiasts out there who peruse this content for stress-relief, to aid sleep or for sheer entertainment. The community spans Reddit, Instagram, YouTube and – according to Google trends – interest in ASMR is on the rise, with the top 5 regions being South Korea, China, Canada, the United States and Australia.
Several brands have already jumped on this particular bandwagon – some exploiting ASMR’s novelty factor and others producing content that is genuinely soothing. KFC’s 2016 ad featuring George Hamilton as Colonel Sanders falls in the former category. Funnier than relaxing, it blatantly parodies ASMR YouTube videos in a bid to become viral. IKEA’s 2017 ‘Oddly IKEA’ piece, on the other hand, is actually therapeutic to watch. (Test it if you have trouble sleeping – you’ll be out in no time!) It gets the tone, subject matter and pacing right – confirmed by a slew of compliments in the comments section.
The science behind ASMR is still in a relatively early phase of research. There is some indication that those who experience it have brains that are wired differently from the rest of the population, while others have speculated that the videos restage infantile and even pre-evolutionary states of care. It has even been suggested that the viewing of ASMR-inducing videos help viewers achieve a “flow-like state.” Can this herald a new mindfulness trend that doesn’t require a digital detox? If this sounds like a stretch, think again – in 2017 AXA PPP Healthcare highlighted the therapeutic potential of ASMR on their blog and commissioned YouTuber WhispersRed to develop audio material that helps listeners relax and sleep.
Though aural aspects of ASMR content tend to be favoured above all other stimuli, the visual is still an important source of satisfaction. No wonder then, that most brands that have tried to tap into the subculture with videos that privilege sound over images. But here lie missed opportunities. Scrolling through Instagram, you’ll notice that slow-paced, detail-focused clips are extremely popular, living under hashtags like #satisfying, #oddlysatisfying and #asmr. You can rudimentarily divide such videos under geography and subject matter: slime videos to North America, soap cutting videos to Russia and clips of people eating/chewing to Asia. What they all share is a haptic quality – they evoke a sense of touch.
The concept of haptic visuality is developed by Laura U. Marks in her books, The Skin of the Film (2000) and Touch: Sensous Theory and Multisensory Media (2002). Highlighting genres like porn, Marks argues that certain images and techniques like close-ups are conducive to tactile perception, encouraging “a bodily relationship between looker and image.” ASMR content on Instagram possesses several key features of haptic visuality: close-ups of sensory organs like skin and mouths, actions like poking, prodding, making, swatching, chewing and crumbling. The clips spark visceral reactions either directly (using clips of touch and taste) and indirectly (showing close-ups of materials in motion). And the visceral is indeed key as ASMR videos can be like Marmite – while some find them comforting, the words ‘creepy’ often spring up in discussions too. Perhaps one of the reasons, beyond the obvious sexual connotations is the ambiguity of certain clips. Sometimes it takes a few seconds to figure out what you are looking at – by which point you are likely to be either mesmerised or repulsed.
While food and drinks lend themselves quite naturally to ASMR content, beauty is also a category that has plenty of room for experimentation. Lush is at the forefront of producing such posts, especially on Instagram (see below) and on YouTube. The clips are used sparingly but to great effect – they highlight the playful material qualities and the relaxing emotional states that can be achieved with their products.
Some beauty brands, meanwhile, seem to unwittingly post content for Tingleheads, or do so without acknowledging the community. Chanel’s US-based We Love Coco Instagram account, for example, features the odd video that is just as relaxing as it is aspirational. The choice of this content cannot be random – ASMR-oriented clips disrupt mindless scrolling through posts, inspire viewers to linger and focus their attention. The longer they watch a video, the better they’re able to register the depicted products and, ultimately, inspire a desire to purchase.
Swatch videos, too, are satisfying to watch. The emphasis on skin contact, slow movement and pigment quality create a haptic, liminal space that directly links the digital to IRL experience. It’s no wonder that these types of posts do well – they respond to the existing sensory gap that exists between digital content and the physical trial of products, which brands are also trying to close with augmented reality apps and virtual makeup mirrors.
So why is this wonderfully weird piece of Internet subculture relevant? While it’s unlikely that ASMR clips will completely overtake brunch pictures and selfies on your social newsfeed, their increasing popularity reveals significant shifts in contemporary visual culture. Mainstream interest in the Tinglehead community indicates that there is a hunger for crossmodal media that explicitly encourage interaction between multiple senses. We are no longer satisfied with beautiful or interesting images – they need to inspire a physical reaction to capture and sustain our attention. Take the marine conservation charity, Sea Shepherd’s, recent campaign that raised awareness about the damage caused by plastic pollution to ocean wildlife. The short clip initially brings to mind the pace and atmosphere of ASMR content, only to jarr viewers into realising that they are in fact seeing animals suffocating to death in plastic debris. The result is hard to ignore and to forget.