The Unboxing Generation

Thinking outside the box takes on a whole new meaning for YouTubers raking in millions of views – and millions of dollars – thanks to the unboxing phenomenon. Getting people to watch you take products out of their packaging is child’s play – sometimes literally.

On the web, being famous can take many forms. In a world where celebrity is often measured by the number of clicks one gets, popularity and relevance can have very little to do with one another. Indeed, the rise of Internet trendsetters has led to the multiplication of rather unusual phenomena in what we call the “storytelling industry”. This type of audio-visual content, while often seeming utterly pointless, might even end up redefining what captivates people online, especially younger audiences.

Take unboxing, for example.

“In short, if it’s on sale, someone is probably unboxing it on YouTube “ - Erica Buist, The Guardian

Unboxing is essentially a marketing buzzword defined as the act of removing a product from its packaging. Based on such a definition, a birthday party is really nothing more than a big unboxing bash.

Apply unboxing to the Internet, however, and the definition gets a bit more… unusual. Indeed, it consists in actually watching other people do the unwrapping while enjoying their comments and observations as they go about their task. What started out as video content shared by vloggers with lots of time on their hands but small production budgets quickly escalated into a global craze.

In fact, according to 2014 data from Think With Google, viewings of unboxing videos online increased by 57% over the past year, while uploading of such content surged by 50%. To give you an idea of the sheer magnitude of such numbers: it would take seven years to watch every single unboxing video posted on the web during the first few months of 2014 alone.

According to Google Consumer Survey, one out of every five YouTube user watches unboxing videos. That’s a whopping 20 percent. The math becomes pretty simple: billions of combined views on YouTube channels can be sold by their creators to major players such as Disney for millions of dollars. One can easily conclude that unboxing is anything but a passing fad.

As for who actually enjoys this sort of content, there seems to be no specific profile. Young and old, techies or beauty product aficionados: it seems anyone and everyone finds pleasure in watching unboxing videos. Which can be a problem, knowing how rules and control in the cyber world can be rather vague and hard to implement.

Toy porn

One particularly vulnerable segment of the unboxing audience seems to have fallen hard for the hypnotic effect of watching other people unwrap stuff they wish they had: children. And not just watching. Indeed, among the hundreds of producers aiming their content directly at young consumers is 8-year-old Evan, whose EvanTubeHD unboxing channel has so far netted him over one million dollars.

And let’s not forget Disney, richer by $4.9 million since launching its DisneyCollectorBr channel in 2014. The irony, of course, is that these people are using the simple yet highly lucrative act of unwrapping toys on the web as a way to entice a young audience that remains protected from such direct solicitation in traditional and online advertising.

For the general, adult public, unboxing essentially serves two purposes: shopping by proxy, and actually watching the product before purchasing it in order to minimize the risks of being disappointed. However, when it comes to kids, only the first category applies. That’s why video content producers go out of their way to stimulate their audience’s imagination and awaken in them the dream of consumption. Indeed, if you pay close attention, you’ll realize that amateurs as much as multinationals seem to apply the same principles witnessed in advertising: short clips, bright colours, emphasis on product attributes, and captivating and engaging narration.

Mystery also seems to form part of unboxing’s unwritten rules, a sense of mystery and fascination that can easily capture the mind and attention of a child who just happens to discover such videos. Imagine: interrelated toy product videos for hours on end… And that’s not even counting all the advertising that serves to promote such content, turning minor YouTube celebrities into instant millionaires and playing a major role in children being glued to their screen, watching over and over someone slowly taking a beautiful toy out of its box…

Feeling content

This video simply shows a woman unwrapping eggs with a surprise inside, such as tattoos of popular characters featured in animated films like Cars or apps like Angry Birds. And yet, over 100 millions people so far have watched it.

How to explain such mind-boggling popularity? According to Buzzfeed, it seems that children were led to the video through content related to movies that are extremely popular among the younger crowd. Thus, the mere fact of linking said content with highly popular characters ended up sending views for the egg video into the stratosphere. Here’s a case study that will most certainly speak to entertainment companies hoping to find new ways to increase sales of their ancillary products – further proof that unboxing is being more and more perceived as forming part of a communications strategy aimed directly at children.

Enraptured by wrapping

Etsy designer and blogger Chappell Ellison once said packaging dangerously stokes our desires for the product within. Anyone who has ever watched a kid in a toy store will know what she’s talking about. Unboxing thus becomes an incredibly powerful opportunity to recreate, albeit artificially, this exciting sensation that children and adults alike enjoy just before they actually own a product. It is even seen, to a certain degree, as some sort of ritual, a very important part of the purchasing process for consumers. Too bad children don’t yet possess the ability to rationalize such a process in a way that would prevent excess or poor judgement…

New strategies, new stories

Both game watching and unboxing have become huge trends in the world of online video content. In both cases, all that is involved is watching someone do something that viewers are experiencing by proxy. And yet, audiences, especially the younger market, are discovering through this process new ways of consuming products and video content. One can only wonder where all of this will lead… Interactive unboxing? Hey, why not?

Anne-Marie Archambault
Anne-Marie Archambault is the Strategy and Content Experience Director at Akufen. Versatile and centred on the user experience, she considers herself as the bridge between content and container, between strategy and emotion. She has worked as a freelancer for many years in television and digital, working in creative teams in experimental and interactive. Anne-Marie is fascinated by the process of creation, the clashing worlds and the ideas that come to life.
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