Search "ASMR" on YouTube and you'll get about 5,220,000 results, including a 45-minute video of soap-carving, a 52-minute video of someone cleansing her hands in a tub of water, and a more videos of Gentle Whispering than you might imagine.
And then there are the videos of food: of people whispering as they prep, cook, and eat, with the loudest sounds coming from the texture of the food itself. It's as if the person has a microphone attached to his or her upper lip and you're just listening in.
But while ASMR (which stands for "autonomous sensory meridian response") only affects a select group of people—those who experience a tingling state of relaxation, usually starting in the scalp and moving down the back, when listening to sounds like whispering, the unwrapping of packages, the sticky sound at the end of words, finger-tapping—major food brands are trying to capitalize on the attention. It's natural for these big companies to throw their hats in the ASMR ring: Some branded foods—like Tic-Tacs, Shake Shack burgers, and Kinder Surprise eggs—are already ASMR favorites, according to Digiday.
A KFC advertisement created in July by the advertising agency Wieden + Kennedy shows the "colonel" making all sorts of pleasing sounds as he ruffles and smoothes out pocket squares. But the most impactful sound comes when he bites into a drumstick with skin so crispy, you can hear it shatter: brittle-as-glass chicken skin splitting at tooth impact.
As KFC's chief marketing officer, Kevin Hochman, told the Washington Post, the advertisement was an effort to reach out to the "millions of Americans" who are still unaware that the chicken chain offers extra crispy fried chicken, which "makes a loud sound when you bite into it, versus our original recipe. It appeals to a very different customer.” (If there are KFC customers out there who would be opposed to even crispier chicken skin, please make yourself known: I want to know why!)
"It makes a lot of sense, why we would at least try to enter this space in a small way," Hochman said. "There’s a lot of comfort that’s associated with ASMR, and that’s what our food delivers.”
KFC isn't the only major brand to hone in on the parallel sensations of eating food and listening to someone else and eating food. Two Dove videos from November of last year feature the sounds of chocolate—from unwrapping to splitting to biting. BBDO Beijing, the advertising firm that created the video, said that the "pleasure [of listening to the sounds] could be analogous to the tingling of silky smooth pleasure experienced by consumers whilst eating Dove chocolate." The results of a study by neuroscientists to see just how effective the videos were have not yet been released.
As the Post reported, some ASMRists—some of whom say the sensation has helped them to cope with depression, PTSD, and insomnia—don't want their experiences trivialized (or exploited) by brands.
For me, too, the best sounds of the kitchen and the table—the exhale of a slapped-down dough, the slurp of saucy spaghetti, the split-crack of ice cubes flooded with hot coffee—are best enjoyed alone, without brands butting in and when I can really do the activity, not just watch it.
But that chicken in the first video? It sounds so crispy, I don't even think about how it looks (or tastes, really). It just sounds good. My bet is that more texture-forward foods—pudding cups, Slurpees, popcorn, the Outback Steakhouse Bloomin' Onion—will use the same sound-editing to shift the focus of their advertisements to make all of us hungry (and some of us tingly and relaxed).
Are brands exploiting this phenomenon? If you were to choose one food to listen to the eating of, which would it be? Tell us in the comments!
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