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The Hidden Appeal of ASMR Unboxing Videos

Steve Heisler

person's hands opening box

ASMR, the phenomenon of inducing sensory tingles from sounds, elevates influencer marketing to levels consumers can’t ignore

Blue Apron, the delivery meal kit brand, sends its products to YouTube influencers to be featured in the popular content producers’ videos. Some of the influencers they target aren’t your typical cooking channels. Instead, accounts such as Gentle Whispering ASMR and Gibi ASMR are dedicated to producing videos that stimulate a tingling sensation in viewers.

ASMR, or autonomous sensory meridian response, is a relatively new phrase—the first clinical study of the phenomenon was conducted in 2013—but many have felt the sensation their entire lives. It’s categorized by a fuzzy feeling in the scalp that trickles down the spine to the chest area. Though it can occur inadvertently, there is a consensus as to what sounds can induce ASMR: speaking softly, the crinkling of wrapping paper, tapping fingernails on hard surfaces and lightly brushing a microphone, to name a few. The concept has been used in prominent advertising campaigns of late, notably a Michelob Ultra commercial featuring Zoë Kravitz that aired during Super Bowl LII.

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Brands benefit from ASMR because it immediately captures the focus of viewers, even those who aren’t actively watching the screen (some swear the audio helps them relax or fall asleep). In the case of the Michelob spot, the bottle is opened and slowly poured, then the glass is held up to the microphone to capture the sounds of the bubbles dissipating. ASMR also enhances replay value: Vulture reported that some viewers rewound their DVRs to rewatch the commercial.

ASMR dominates YouTube channels and attracts loads of attention. As of October, there are more than 30 top ASMR content creators that boast hundreds of thousands of followers and tens of millions of views. MarTech Today recently covered ASMR with the headline, “Why brands need to take ASMR more seriously,” and noted that one form of ASMR videos, in which people knead goopy slime, garnered 25 billion views in 2018.

The content of Blue Apron ASMR videos resembles that of any cooking how-to video, but slowed down and with the volume turned up. Maria Viktorovna, the on-camera face of Gentle Whispering ASMR, runs her Blue Apron videos by first opening the box and pulling out the ingredients one at a time, massaging the soft packaging of each until it crackles or patting her fingernails across hard plastic containers. The camera remains close to the food itself as Viktorovna slowly and deliberately slices onions on a cutting board and tosses them in a pan to simmer. She narrates each step in a metered whisper, popping her P’s. Each of these aural cues is a potential trigger for ASMR.

ASMR aside, unboxing videos chart a similar course—minus eating. (The sound of chewing is another known ASMR trigger.) Influencers are sent mobile phones, baskets of beauty products, video game consoles or toys, then simply open the packaging in real time for the camera. The goal is to capture their excitement to recreate the experience of unwrapping a holiday present. In particular, children seem to love unboxing videos for the surprise value and their simplicity. The No. 1-earning YouTube star is an 8-year-old boy named Ryan Kaji who opens and reviews toys under the username Ryan ToysReview [editor’s note: the Ryan ToysReview channel now goes by the name Ryan’s World]. He generated $22 million in pretax income from June 1, 2017, through June 1, 2018.

Unboxing videos are attractive in part because they produce unintentional ASMR. They contain stretches without talking in which the only thing being recorded is the sound of opening boxes or torn-off plastic. The unboxers handle the items with care, often zooming in so viewers can admire each contour of the device being opened. They involve a single camera and microphone so words can remain quiet, further stimulating tingles.

Recently, Domino’s and Google collaborated on an unboxing that showcased both brands. The companies sent pizzas to influencers that contained pizza in one box and a new Google Pixel 4 smartphone in the other. The shots of food accompanied by the sounds of plastic films being peeled from the phone screen combined to form videos that inspired tingles as much as pangs of hunger.

If you’re thinking of sending packages of your product to YouTube ASMR influencers, consider those with the proper equipment. Watch a few of their videos to see if they have high-quality microphones, particularly some that offer binaural recording. This type of audio gives off the impression of 3D stereo, which has been shown to enhance the effects of ASMR. Check for high visual production value as well. While audio triggers are the most prevalent, some people also find that seeing someone perform rote or mundane tasks, such as cooking, can induce ASMR; triggers vary per person, so don’t neglect visuals entirely. Also consider the location of your YouTuber. ASMR videos are more popular in the U.S than elsewhere in the world.

Watch some videos and try to induce the tingles on yourself. Understanding the appeal helps you decide which crinkly materials to include in your box.

Steve Heisler is staff writer at the American Marketing Association. His work can be found in Rolling Stone, GQ, The A.V. Club and Chicago Sun-Times. He may be reached at sheisler@ama.org.