Sunday night’s Super Bowl audience watched the New England Patriots seize their sixth NFL championship and got an eyeful of Maroon 5 frontman Adam Levine’s nipples, but at least one of the broadcast’s coveted ad spots was more essential to hear than to see. Michelob Ultra’s debut commercial for their new light beer, called Pure Gold, uses a combination of isolated, textural sounds which can trigger tingly physical sensations in the listener, a phenomena known as autonomous sensory meridian response, or ASMR. While videos that feature specific pleasure-inducing sounds have blown up on YouTube and Instagram in recent years, Michelob Ultra’s ad took ASMR fully into the mainstream.
The ad stars actress Zoe Kravitz sitting at a table in front of two microphones, backdropped by majestic cliffs overlooking the ocean. She leans forward towards the mics and whispers, “Let’s all experience … something … together.”
She drags the bottle of Pure Gold across the smooth able and picks it up, drumming her fingernails against the glass.
“This place … so pure … you can feel it,” Kravitz says, her voice still hushed. She spins the bottle on its edge against the table’s surface, and then pops the cap, the click-hiss filling the air. Pouring the liquid into a glass, Kravitz leans back with a subtle smile on her lips as the fizzing bubbles reach a crescendo.
Research is still too limited to quantify what percentage of the population experiences ASMR, but the vast amount of anecdotal evidence that’s collected across the internet indicates it’s relatively common, but definitely not universal. The feeling can be difficult to put into words, but it’s most commonly described as a tingly sensation that’s distinctly different from the goosebumps; unlike the cringe produced by the sound of nails on a chalkboard, these tingles are pleasurable, but not necessarily in a sexual way. Some describe the feeling as a head rush or brain orgasm, but with a calming after effect. ASMR research has thus far been limited, but psychologists and researchers have theorized that the tingles are related to atypical brain wiring or a reflection of psychological vulnerability.
The origins of ASMR as an internet trend can be traced back to a YouTube channel called Gentle Whispering, which was started in 2009 by a Russian woman named Maria, who decided to create the type of audio content that she found soothing. Her whisper videos became so popular — 1.6 million followers and counting — that she was able to turn it into a full-time job. Whispering is a hugely popular category of ASMR, and whisper videos can be found in just about every language imaginable; there are also videos dedicated to people chewing, sipping, slurping and swallowing foods and liquids.
Gentle Whispering also created a space in which other so-called “tingleheads” could explore their own inexplicable sound-induced sensations. The list of common ASMR triggers has grown longer and weirder in the years since, but there’s a bounty of online content to stimulate them all — soap cutting, slime squishing, finger tapping, surface scratching, ice crunching and water gargling, to name just a few.
“Before the online community existed, I’ve heard many people who experience ASMR say they thought they were the only ones that experienced it,” Emma Barratt, a graduate student at Swansea University who conducted a survey of ASMR enthusiasts, told the Guardian. “I think the lack of evidence that ASMR was experienced by such a huge group of people may be why it was overlooked or written off … in the past.”