I scroll through Instagram to help me fall asleep at night. So sue me. I have no problem admitting this. I’m less eager to share, however, exactly what I scroll through. For months now, before bed, I’ve been watching the most banal-looking videos, from hands kneading glossy slime to squeegees hypnotically moving back and forth on screen-printing frames.
What happened to me? How did I get here? Why do I love seeing bath bombs sliced into tiny pieces so much?
Turns out I’m not alone. This online phenomenon, called Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR), has been picking up steam over the past decade. People who experience ASMR typically feel “tingles” from certain audio stimuli, like whispers, tapping sounds, hair brushing or, in my case, the sound of people playing with slime.
In fact, a flourishing online community of aptly named “ASMRtists” deliberately amplify these sounds and visuals with powerful mics and close-up shots to give their audiences pleasurable tingles.
Bob Ross was the OG “ASMRtist.” He has been tickling our senses long before we even knew they wanted to be tickled. Many viewers would agree his 30-minute Joy of Painting television episodes did much more for their desire for relaxation than for their passion for painting. His soothing voice, gentle strokes and soft paint-dabbing pacified us through the ’80s and ’90s. Ross even presented evidence that his show was doing more for people than teaching them to paint when, in a 1990 interview, he revealed that, “We’ve gotten letters from people who say they sleep better when the show is on.”
IKEA also has dabbled in classic ASMR on its YouTube channel with “Oddly IKEA,” a 25-minute video set in a vacant dorm room. A wispy voice elegantly describes IKEA items, while hands touch, pat and stroke them in tingle-inducing ways.
Yet these “braingasms” don’t capture my interest nearly as much as the fact that we now derive some of our entertainment from watching other people perform dull, unimaginative tasks. There’s a lot to be said for videos stirring physical sensations, but I’m fascinated by the subjects of the videos themselves.
The newest series from IKEA’s “Where Life Happens” campaign confirms my suspicion. These YouTube pre-roll ads were created by Swedish agency Åkestam Holst, which it likes to call “irresistible pointless Trueview ads.” The campaign features regular folks in real-life situations doing dreary things like dishwashing and arm-wrestling. The videos share one key element: Each of them lasts five minutes and the characters repeatedly urge you to skip the ad, as if they’re annoyed you’re still watching. Every once in a while a name and price appears over an IKEA item, but nothing truly exciting happens.
These boring, pointless commercials have achieved what most other ad agencies cannot claim — an average viewing time of a whopping three minutes. They are agonizingly long, with no story arc, action or juicy hook. The only drama that occurs is when someone tells you to stop watching and leave. I believe the appeal lies in reverse psychology; it’s human nature to do what you’re told not to.
The actors further add to the intimacy between the brand and the audience by acknowledging your existence, as if they know you’re there. When they imply that there’s nothing to see here, they break the fourth wall and let you into their daily lives. Suddenly the normally mundane has become mesmerizing.
The notion of being seduced by boredom isn’t new. IKEA’s pre-roll ads remind me of Charulata, a 1964 Indian Bengali film directed by Satyajit Ray. The film opens on a lonely wife named Charulata wordlessly embroidering her husband’s initials onto a napkin. The camera then tracks her dawdling through the mansion, following the sound of a bird and longingly observing the world outside with her opera glasses through barred windows. This goes on for seven whole minutes. She forces you to empathize; to connect with her boredom by living every moment in all its monotony.
Even Rihanna gets it. Less than a week ago, she posted her first ever makeup tutorial on Instagram using lip paint from her cosmetic line and left followers spellbound. A video that basically was nothing more than somebody putting on lipstick got more than 12 million views in less than four days.
It may well be that we are watching these videos because we genuinely expect something to happen. But what if we watch them to take a pause from the wild, wild web? To find some respite in the characters’ ordinary worlds?
As for ASMR, no scientific or psychological research currently exists to prove its benefits and relaxing effects. But the neuro-divergent community maintains that using repetitive stimuli as therapy has long been practiced, albeit without a formal name. Playing with slime actually find its roots in “stimming,” which is a self-stimulatory behavior found mostly in people on the autistic spectrum, such as hand-flapping or rocking. Fidget spinners use the same mechanism to help with symptoms of ADHD and anxiety. What may be simply a fun stimulus for some has been a calming practice for others.
IKEA tried to bore its way into peoples’ hearts by luring us into someone’s drab, everyday life. Does this mean that brands will now engage in a new kind of empathy? One that doesn’t stop with a banner ad or pre-roll ad, but reaches out of the screen to comfort you and let you know that the brand is there for you in some small way? Someday ASMR could be a certified therapy or a sleeping aid substitute. Whether businesses will use it for harmless amusement or for bettering the world, however, remains to be seen.