Two years ago, sitting in his Chicago apartment, Jeff came to the sober realization that he’d hit rock bottom. Not from heroin or booze, not gambling or prostitution, but from indulging in a two-hour feast of ASMR pleasure… on Hilton Hotels and Resorts’ customer-service line.
By the time his binge was over, he’d dropped $200 on the Hilton Honors rewards program.
ASMR, short for autonomous sensory meridian response, is a feeling of deep relaxation or tingling feelings people get from specific audio triggers. For a primer, dive into the deep end in the ASMR subreddit, or watch this video of Aubrey Plaza eating cornflakes. YouTube and Reddit, where high-quality audio flourishes, are where most of the ASMR community lives. Needless to say, the voice of a minimum-wage customer-service employee ported over a crusty landline is not where most ASMR fans get their rocks off.
“When I hung up the phone and the buzz had worn off, I was like, ‘Oh boy, Jeff, what’s happened to you?’” he says. “‘You used to be a good kid. You got good grades.’”
The next day, Jeff visited IsItNormal.com to see if anyone else found customer-service phone calls “fuzzy and relaxing.” Turns out, he’s not alone. There’s a whole subreddit dedicated to “unintentional ASMR,” where people post videos that provide the same ASMR feelings without being specifically made for ASMR.
But as David in Atlanta tells me, nothing is better than getting it “straight from the tap” — he’s a customer-service ASMR aficionado as well. Regular ASMR videos are fine, Jeff and David explain, but they’d much rather settle into a call with Comcast to see what the latest HBO packages are all about.
Where It All Began
Both Jeff and David look back and remember specific instances from their childhood when they just enjoyed the shit out of some customer service. “There’d be times as a kid when I’d be watching the sandwich-wrapper person at Subway expertly wrapping all the sandwiches, and I would just, like, zone out and feel, like, total delightful numbness. And I was like, ‘Oh, this is… this is real good,’” Jeff tells MEL.
In middle and high school, “I’d be home alone … and I’d get a call on the house phone from some solicitor trying to reach my parents. But before he asked for my parents, he’d go into a little bit of a rehearsed spiel, trying to sell me something — and that’s when I was like, whoo boy, I can listen to this forever.” Jeff felt disappointed when they eventually asked for an adult. “Like, ‘What? Oh, sorry. He’s not here.’”
Fifteen years later, Jeff is a skilled navigator of a customer-service pleasure cruise. What makes for an ideal call? “It’s a really weird combination of things,” he says. “It’s service-oriented interactions, but it really has to do with the comfort level of the person serving you — if they know exactly what they’re doing and are comfortable doing it, and don’t seem too miserable to be catering to me, so there’s no pressure on me, and I’m a little sleepy. Then it’s like, game on. Like sometimes when I’m tired and I’m at a restaurant with a really good waiter who’s, like, super-comfortable, it’ll hit there too.”
This same situation is what first triggered David. “My parents have always had a deep love of music, and so before they got any kind of appliances or furniture, they got this beautiful baby grand piano,” he explains. “Our house was pretty small, so the piano took up almost the entire living room. When I was about 7, they had to call in this piano repair guy. He was this old dude who, at that time to me, seemed bent and fragile, his hands shaking as he introduced himself. But I’ll be damned if, when he was working on that piano, he didn’t transform. His hands were suddenly lithe and fluid and dextrous. I was transfixed by his competence and skill and had an insane level of ASMR just watching him work.”
Similar to Jeff, David realized his triggers to ASMR lied in a specific brand of customer service: “the idea that this person is actually going the extra mile for just you.”
Like Jeff, David “didn’t learn about ASMR as a concept until much later in life,” and tells me most of his his triggers to ASMR can be found in a specific brand of customer service. “It’s the idea that this really kind and generous person on the phone is going the extra mile for just you,” he says. “The actual real-life corollaries are just so much more effective [than ASMR videos] for me.”
Customer Service Compulsion, Explained
Personal attention is a key part of the ASMR experience for most ASMR fans, but what sets these two apart is seeking it out in the real world. When Jeff moved out of his parents’ place and into an apartment, his affinity for customer-service calls made him the perfect roommate. All the bills were in his name, and he’d explore bonus cable packages or handle bill disputes with pleasure.
“Most people have issues with Comcast and dread communicating with them, but for me, I was happy that the Comcast [account] was in my name so I could call them, if we wanted to try to get more channels or HBO for free or something,” he says. “So like with Mark [his roommate] I was like, ‘Hey Mark, I’m going to try to get more channels.’ And then I’d just go into my room and just like chill on my couch and call the Comcast man.”
Personally, I’d much rather just pay for things than have to call or talk to anyone. But Jeff’s skill navigating customer service has landed him free HBO for two years, he says. “They’ve had their free promotions, so I’d get one month or three months at a time — and then every one or three months when [the promotion expired], I’d call Comcast again and have them turn it back on. It was never an issue for me.”
Jeff finds so much pleasure in calling Comcast, in fact, that there’s an afterglow: “After the phone calls, I usually sit there in a little bit of a haze,” he says. “Just simply soaking it in for as long as I can, trying to think back to the conversation to make it last.”
So what about the ASMR YouTube scene? “YouTubers are amazing and can get close to making you feel that way,” says David. But… “there is always that little awareness in the back of my mind that this video was made for millions. In most instances, the videos are simply attempting to mimic or recreate real-life experiences. The actual real-life ASMR that comes from those real-life situations is on a whole other level.”
The “scripted spiel” and acute personal attention is what separates IRL ASMR from the noise. So while some ASMR fans might sit in front of Youtube with expensive headphones, Jeff and David are on the phone, exploring the minute details of cable upgrades.
“I love the the scripted spiels, I don’t like when they ask me questions,” Jeff says. “So like with Comcast home security or something like that, they’re like, ‘Hey, have you heard about this?’ I’d be like, ‘No, I haven’t heard about it…’ And then they’d go into it and I’d be like, ‘Oh wow, what uh… is it available in my area?’ So I definitely ask them leading questions to try to get them to go into details. And then when I don’t buy anything, they’re like, well, screw you.”
The Dark Side of Call Center ASMR
Perhaps when the Greek poet Hesiod urged moderation in all things, he foresaw a day when guys like Jeff would sit in their garden apartments for hours listening to a voice on the phone list the benefits of upgrading cable packages.
Jeff says he “probably ends up signing up for more channels and stuff because I’m put in such a pleasurable haze when they call.” On the phone that night with Hilton Honors, he describes letting the rep go on and on — “It was gold. ASMR gold.” — and then feeling suckered into saying yes. “The dangerous part of this becomes having a hard time separating the pure pleasure I was feeling from whether or not it was a good service,” he says. “But this time I was like, ‘Okay, yeah, I’ll do it,’ and ended up spending $200 on the upfront fee.”
Jeff got his money back in the end. “There ended up being a 24-hour cancellation policy. I felt sad to have to cancel the next day, but I hope the guy got his commission.”
As David puts it, talking to people in real life “erases the boundary” between real and fake, but in real life there are real consequences.
Luckily, it’s when reps deviate from the script that pulls Jeff and David from their haze. “It gets old after a little while. You get out of the funk for whatever reason. Maybe they start asking you questions like, ‘Oh, give me your credit card.’” (For any ASMR entrepreneurs out there, Jeff has a pitch that would safeguard guys like him and David: “A hotline number where somebody pretends to sell you something until you fall asleep.”)
And then — I had to know — what about the other side of the coin? What is this like from the call center’s perspective?
I asked call-center employees whether they’d ever realized they were talking to ASMR fans like Jeff and David. No one had noticed before, but one guy — a 27-year-old in the U.K. — is an ASMR fan himself who gets the tingles from callers.
“Quite a few times actually,” he says. “It’s mainly from, like, old men with deep low voices. I have to try my best to remember to actually do my job rather than just sitting there relaxing. It’s one of the very few perks of the job.”