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Mukbang YouTubers are earning millions. What’s driving this trend?

In February 2023, YouTuber Zach Choi racked up an impressive 468 million video views. That figure was even higher the previous month, achieving over 486 million views in January. According to Social Blade, a social media data tracker, Zach Choi is estimated to be earning up to $1.3 million per month. DONA 도나, another YouTuber, averaged 244 million views per month between January and February 2023, with Social Blade estimating her earnings to be up to $586,000 per month.

So what do Zach Choi ASMR and DONA 도나 channels have in common?

They record themselves eating. A lot.

They are mukbang channels. The most successful of them are earning millions of dollars a month from YouTube ad revenues, and when you throw sponsorships, livestream donations and fan memberships into the mix, Mukbang makes for a lucrative endeavour.

So what exactly is Mukbang?

The word ‘mukbang’ is a portmanteau of the Korean words meokda (eat) and bangsong (broadcast) to signify an eating broadcast (meokbang → mukbang). As often happens with worldwide trends, an official start date for the inception of mukbang is hard to come by. It is, however, generally understood to have started around 2010 in South Korea, a time when the number of internet users in the country had almost doubled to 40.86 million compared to the number of users (20.91 million) at the turn of the century.

The first mukbang videos appeared on AfreecaTV, a South Korean video streaming platform launched in 2005. Its emergence has been attributed to a combination of factors including the rise of single-person households in South Korea, which reached an all time high of 7.17 million households in 2021, and as a rebellion against the traditional Korean norms of etiquette and ‘strict table decorum’.

Mukbang’s allure would be another example of the Korean Wave or Hallyu, the growing popularity of South Korean culture worldwide. Not simply confined to South Korea, mukbang videos started being uploaded onto YouTube, the earliest of which appears to have been recorded in 2010, and Google Trends data suggests worldwide interest started picking up around 2012.

One of the oldest mukbang videos on YouTube, uploaded in 2010.

The interest in mukbang grew in parallel with interest in ‘food challenges’ or ‘calories challenges’, a challenge in which a person attempts to consume a large amount of calories, often 10,000 calories or more, within a specified time-frame.

Interest in these challenges may partly be attributed to Michael Phelps’ diet during the 2008 Beijing Olympic, which caused a media frenzy when it was revealed he was consuming 8,000 to 10,000 calories a day. In the pursuit of standing out and acquiring more subscribers, calorie challenges grew and grew, and it’s easy enough to find people attempting to eat 50,000 calories in a day. These calories challenges are now synonymous with the mukbang genre.

Why is mukbang so popular?

So what exactly is the allure? If we want to watch someone eat, can’t we just go to a restaurant? It’ll probably raise a few eyebrows if you’re not discreet about it. But why does this genre of content creation garner millions of views? What are viewers getting out of it?

Combatting loneliness

According to research published in the International Journal of Management, Accounting and Economics, people watch mukbang as a way to combat loneliness. Dining is often associated with social activity, for example, grabbing dinner with friends or family. Walking past a busy part of town, one can’t help but notice restaurants full of people dining and socialising together, which happens to be the definition of the term commensality. The two are very much intertwined. With single-person households becoming more common throughout the world, one can reasonably assume there is a heightened sense of loneliness felt among large segments of the global population.

Mukbang helps to alleviate this isolation and alienation, giving viewers the sense they are eating with others, whether it’s with other viewers on a livestream or the host. The ability to interact with people during a stream strengthens the emotional connection a viewer has with this online community, and thus mukbang helps people feel less alone. Mukbang, therefore, isn’t a simple act of watching someone eat, but rather an immersive experience that provides a feeling of togetherness and social interaction.

ASMR

ASMR or ‘autonomous sensory meridian response’ is a pleasant tingling sensation triggered by a wide variety of sensory stimuli. These stimuli can include the sound of rain drops, a whispering voice or popping bubble wrap. The list of stimuli is extensive and just so happens to include watching and hearing people eat. People derive ASMR-related pleasure from watching and listening to mukbang. Opening a packet of chips, slurping noodles, chewing a burger, frying eggs. These are all stimuli that attract viewers to mukbang. Many mukbang videos will have the term ‘ASMR’ in their titles and some channels such as Zack Choi’s mentioned earlier, have ASMR as part of their channel name.

Thumbnail of a Zach Choi ASMR mukbang video
A popular mukbang video by Zach Choi, who has ‘ASMR’ in the title, thumbnail and channel name.

Escapism

Research also suggests that watching mukbang can provide viewers with a form of escapism. Some people who are on calorie-restricted diets may watch the indulgence and overconsumption of mukbang to vicariously enjoy the foods they have temporarily denied themselves. Others may watch mukbang to develop an understanding of what certain foods that aren’t available in their countries look and taste like.

Gratification

Much like with escapism, the derivation of gratification from mukbang takes several forms. For some, there may be a sexual element to it, particularly in the host’s expressions of pleasure while eating, leading mukbang to sometimes be labelled as food porn or gastronomic voyeurism.

For others the gratification comes from the closeness they feel with the host, heightened by professional footage and audio, whereby viewers feel they too have eaten what the host just ate. In this circumstance the host is a proxy for the viewer, allowing the viewer to feel as if they have overconsumed without actually doing so.

What does the mukbang trend mean for content creators?

For those stumbling upon the world of mukbang, it can be perplexing to learn that not only are people uploading videos of themselves eating, but millions of people are tuning in to watch. This presents content creators with an opportunity. Sure, you can grab a bowl, a camera and start chomping on your favourite food. But beyond this, the success of mukbang demonstrates there is large potential for experiential content.

Popular ‘study with me’ videos have generated hundreds of thousands and even millions of views from people wanting to study alongside someone else. Coffee shop ambience videos have similarly gained substantial views from those wanting to experience the relaxation of a cosy coffee shop. The creation of content isn’t limited to the traditional script-film-edit process. Giving viewers the opportunity to experience something with you is a powerful opportunity for content creators to explore.

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