For ads to work, they need to be iconic and memorable. They often try to convey strong emotions, make us laugh, make us cry, give us a boost, excite us, and so on – all in the name of consumerism. Michelob Ultra attempted a different strategy in their latest Super Bowl commercial. They wanted to make people feel relaxed. So what's the science here?
They used an approach known as ASMR, which stands for autonomous sensory meridian response. ASMR is a certain feeling, a sort of tingling sensation emanating from the scalp and stretching down to the spine and shoulders. The phenomenon happens following certain triggers, such as whispering, tapping fingernails, the crinkling of paper, and the like. The ad employs several of these approaches.
While ASMR started as a YouTube phenomenon about a decade ago, it has also received a fair amount of scientific scrutiny. First of all, not everyone experiences ASMR, so don’t feel like the odd one out if none of the triggers work for you. In people that do experience ASMR, several studies have confirmed that the unusual effects are actually real.
Last year, researchers at the University of Sheffield conducted a large online survey with over 800 participants that experience ASMR. For the first part of the study, they had the subjects watch videos with ASMR triggers and then answer questions about how they felt. In general, the respondents said they felt more calm and relaxed. The second part of the study looked at their physiological responses to ASMR. For this, the team recruited 112 participants (half of whom experience the phenomenon) to watch a "standard" ASMR video, a non-ASMR video, and a self-selected ASMR video. The researchers discovered that people who experience ASMR had lower heart rates while watching such videos.
Another study used functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to look at the brains of people watching ASMR videos. The researchers asked the participants to press a specific button when they experienced the tingling sensation. Brain scans revealed activation in regions associated with reward (NAcc) and emotional arousal (dACC and Insula/IFG). The team suggests these areas are similar to regions active during social bonding and musical frisson, the goosebumps some people experience when a particular piece of music plays.
It is unclear what the underlying mechanisms are, however. Some think that ASMR might be linked (and be opposite) to misophonia, the irrational hatred of certain sounds.