On Screen Kisses: Why We Can't Stop Watching

Kissing makes us happy – which may explain why we spent 2014 watching other people do it. In March, the fashion label Wren released a viral marketing video titled “First Kiss,” which featured 20 strangers locking lips. That clip, which has over 95 million views, is YouTube’s third most popular video of the year. It’s been spun off into various imitations and spoofs, including The Tonight Show’s dog and cat version “First Lick.” But the real climax came in the form of “9 Kisses,” a series of short films by The New York Times that depict famous actors kissing last week. The showstopper? Reese Witherspoon and Benedict Cumberbatch, passionately and somewhat inexplicably, making out in the shadow of some bushes.

The films, which appear like high-brow fan fiction, include same-sex kissing (Rosario Dawson and Jenny Slate) and don’t all involve romantic smooches (Kristen Stewart and Chadwick Boseman. Still, they’re evidence that we just like seeing people kiss.

Related: 12 of the Most Awkward Wedding Kiss Photos of All Time

“I like to describe kissing as the universal human language,” says Sheril Kirshenbaum, the author of The Science of Kissing: What Our Lips Are Telling Us. “It’s something we can all relate to, even if we’re not in a romantic relationship. It’s something we’ve experienced with our families, probably with some friends and, of course, in affairs of the heart. It’s instantly recognizable and it’s associated with all of these positive emotions.”

There’s an actual science behind it, too, and Kirshenbaum notes that we associate kissing with the feelings of happiness, pleasure and anticipation, particularly when it comes to a first kiss, as depicted in the Wren video. “Neuroscience would say there’s these little chemical signals in our brain that fire when we see someone kiss,” Kirshenbaum explains. “That almost makes us feel as if we’re somehow engaged in the behavior itself. So if we’re watching someone we know what that might feel like, even if we’re not experiencing it.”

“First Kiss,” directed by filmmaker Tatia Pilieva, came about because Melissa Coker, founder and creative director of Wren, wanted to offer a momentary escape. “Most people spend their days staring into screens which is basically the exact opposite of kissing,” she says. “I wanted to make something that would touch people and take them out of their day jobs.”

The clip features several models and actors, none of whom had met before film their particular kiss. There’s a distinct sense of awkwardness to the three-and-a-half minute film because we’re actually watching couples lock lips for the very first time onscreen. “I think people enjoyed the relatability – the awkwardness, the tenderness,” Coker says. “We can all relate to those feelings… I was most interested in how people not only shared it but they liked sharing it – it made them feel good to even share it.”

Coker must feel good too. Following the release of “First Kiss,” the traffic to Wren’s website went up by 14,000 percent and their sales increased by 13,500 percent, according to Coker.

The kissing videos are still emerging, too. A clip called “Mistletoe Kissing Contraption,” which features a Chicago college student named Blake Grigsby soliciting kisses from strangers, has been making the rounds in the past few weeks. University of Bristol TV station, UBTV, produced a clip earlier this month that echoes Pilieva’s efforts. Directed by Gemma Wilson, the video showcases 18 British students meeting and kissing for the first time.

“All of us have this instinctive drive to connect with another individual,” Kirshenbaum says. “But we all have different expectations about kissing. In The New York Times videos, I just loved that they weren’t all the same kind of kiss. They’re not all these passionate, romantic moments – they’re unexpected or awkward or silly. That’s true to life. Kissing says so much that words just can’t convey.”