The fried chicken empire's latest marketing campaign is aimed at a very specific type of customer — one who experiences a phenomenon known as autonomous sensory meridian response, or ASMR, a physical sensation often triggered by certain acoustic stimuli and producing a pleasant tingling that starts in the scalp and can spread throughout the body.
There is a robust and rapidly growing corner of the Internet devoted to ASMR, replete with hundreds of thousands of tingle-triggering YouTube videos by "ASMRtists" who use all manner of sounds to please their viewers: whispering, soft tapping, rustling the bristles of a hairbrush — and, yes, even eating fried chicken. (Munching potato chips, cracking a crab or slurping noodles are said to have potent effects as well.)
If you're someone who experiences ASMR, these videos are mesmerizing and soothing. If you're not someone who experiences ASMR, these videos are boring at the very least; if they happen to feature loud swallowing and lip-smacking, they can be downright revolting.
But millions of people fall into the former category, and it was surely inevitable that this massive untapped market would come to the attention of a major corporate brand. So, on Wednesday, KFC added its own contribution of the world of ASMR videos.
It begins with Hamilton — a.k.a "The Extra Crispy Colonel" — apparently sitting in some sort of walk-in closet. In a gravelly whisper, he starts talking about pocket squares.
"Just listen to the sound," the colonel breathes, running his fingers along the edge of a red silk pocket square, producing, whether intentionally or not, a rubbery, vaguely flatulent sound.
"That's the sound of silk, coming from little worms," he whispers. And then he is suddenly chomping on an extra crispy drumstick.
As corporate marketing videos go, it is … unusual. ("What did I just watch?" wrote one online commenter, hours after the video officially launched.)
But KFC is excited about it. The company hopes this might help reach the millions of Americans who are woefully unaware of its other menu option, says Kevin Hochman, KFC's chief marketing officer.
"Most customers don't know that we actually have a second type of fried chicken — extra crispy," Hochman says. "It makes a loud sound when you bite into it, versus our original recipe. It appeals to a very different customer."
In the hunt to find those very different customers, KFC's advertising agency, Wieden + Kennedy, pointed to the online realm of ASMR.
"This is a community that is absolutely infatuated and enthusiastic about the sensorial experience of sound," Hochman says. He wasn't familiar with ASMR when the suggestion first came up, "but as I've learned more about it, to me it makes a lot of sense, why we would at least try to enter this space in a small way. There's a lot of comfort that's associated with ASMR, and that's what our food delivers."
So how does the ASMR community feel about all this? We asked the doyenne of ASMR, a young Russian expat named Maria (she doesn't publicize her last name), who runs the "GentleWhispering" YouTube channel, where her most popular uploads amass anywhere from 6 million to 16 million views.
On one hand, Maria says, all this attention from mainstream America is exciting: "It's good to have exposure, and people might learn something new. They might find something nice for themselves."
KFC isn't the first big company to try to cash in on the appeal, she adds: Pepsi also gave a hashtag-wink to the ASMR community in an Instagram ad featuring fizzy bubble sounds.)
Plenty of ASMR fans are thrilled about the possibility of wider awareness and acceptance. But the publicity is also a bit intimidating to a community that takes its tingling seriously. There are legions of ASMR devotees who swear the sensation has helped them cope with stress, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and insomnia, and the complexities of the phenomenon have begun to receive more attention from the news media and researchers. ASMRtists don't necessarily want all that to be overshadowed by a wacky chicken video.
"My main concern is that we could be misrepresented, and our values and our goals could be changed in the eyes of the public," Maria says.
As for the KFC ad, she says, she finds it rather funny and harmless. But that doesn't mean all ASMR-based ads would be the same, she adds.
"If advertisers tried to use hypnotic movements, or create that sense of being in a trance, that could actually be very scary. You can convey a lot of information and suggest products that way," she says. "It could have a sort of brainwashing power."