A GOOD friend of mine owns a lot of film memorabilia; despite being a charming, witty adult with an excellent girlfriend and being a fully functioning, productive member of society, he is the proud owner of an array of stuff like Fight Club soap, a stuffed Aliens toy (he’d argue it’s a “face hugger”), expensive, rare posters and various sci-fi character collectibles that never come out of their boxes. I once tested our friendship by drunkenly threatening to write my birthday into his limited edition Battlestar Galactica calendar. He is a very easy-going guy but he takes these things seriously.
As a result, he is meticulous in his research while planning purchases. If you’re spending good money on a set of limited edition Star Wars figurines, for example, particularly if you’re buying second-hand, it’s useful to know exactly what you should be getting. For several years now, various vloggers (video bloggers, as you no doubt know) have performed a useful function in that regard, filming themselves opening up boxes of kit and talking viewers through what they can expect to find therein. It makes perfect sense for a consumer to watch these videos. If you’re paying hundreds, or even thousands, of pounds on something, you want an impartial expert to tell you what you’re getting. It cuts through the marketing hype and bypasses the hard sell you might get in a shop.
These “unboxing videos” have for a while been very popular among people contemplating tech purchases too. Search for an iWatch unboxing video, for example, and you’ll find knowledgeable individuals talking you through exactly what you’ll experience from the moment you open the packaging.
But in recent years unboxing videos have grown arms and legs and turned into an altogether more emotional experience for millions of web users. It’s no longer merely about product information but has turned into a phenomenon that fuels anticipation and mimics the thrill many people get from shopping (not just making the purchase – specifically receiving goods in the post and unwrapping the packaging).
There are now more than 200 million unboxing videos online, and, according to Google’s own maths, it would take more than seven years to watch all the YouTube videos that have “unboxing” in their titles. Google Consumer Surveys has found that one in five consumers say they’ve watched at least one.
Makeup vloggers blazed a trail here. In one, a young woman called “SweetKblog” talks at length about how and why she ordered a “haul” of Mac products, and we watch her cutting open the packaging and being thoroughly excited by it all. It may not seem scintillating content to you or me but this clip has been viewed almost 55,000 times and she has more than 57,000 subscribers. And there are many, many others like her.
If we worry that the lines between straightforward user-generated videos and professional marketing are clearly blurring in this medium, perhaps we should be more concerned about unboxing videos targeting children. If you’ve never heard of them, ask a small child of your acquaintance if they’ve ever watched a video of an egg (such as Kinder) being opened online. Chances are, if they’ve seen one, they’ll have seen hundreds and will be utterly mesmerised by them.
In one of the most popular strands, we see the hands of a woman unwrapping then opening the eggs, and we hear her voice describing the findings. Sometimes there’s jaunty music in the background and relevant ads pop up for small fingers to click on. Another well-known homemade “show” on YouTube is called Blind Bag Wednesday. It’s hosted by primary school-age US siblings Audrey and Otto – sometimes with on-screen help from their parents. They tuck in to what we used to call a lucky-dip of toys and share their delight and surprise as they discover and share the details about their finds – always emphasising when something is considered collectible or rare. (This is a very common tactic in unboxing videos – kids are often made to be hyper-aware of what might be missing from a collection). Blind Bag Wednesday’s 100th episode went out last month and got 27,000 views.
And then there’s young Evan, the cute nine-year-old presenter of EvanTubeHD, which has nearly a million subscribers. He’s like a professional toy reviewer, which means all the kit he showcases is streamed directly on to children’s screens, bypassing any advertising regulation that traditional broadcasters adhere to. In one clip I watched, you see Evan’s own computer screen as he makes a purchase online, then he’s filmed receiving the delivery at the door and expressing exaggerated excitement at opening the package. Evan’s a millionaire now, thanks in part to the ads that appear while he’s unboxing.
In a wholly unscientific survey, I asked my friends’ children if it was satisfying enough for them to merely watch other people unboxing toys – did it not make them desire the treats themselves? Generally, they claimed to like the idea of knowing “what you could get”, and most of their parents said it didn’t fuel the pester power. There is an argument that the enjoyment lies purely in vicarious thrill. Their eyes, of course, still lit up if you say “Kinder Egg” within earshot but there’s no way of proving which avenues influence that appeal the most. One friend, though, who actually works in advertising and knows a thing or two about stealth marketing, said he would rather his kids watched bomb-making instruction videos than this stuff.
But it’s so easy for them to find. One colleague’s kid, who’s too young to write, searches YouTube for “eggs” via voice command, and another friend’s child came across them when a banner appeared beside a Pepper Pig video (yes – a BBC property) and is now hooked. It might all be harmless, but it’s something of a shame that impressionable young minds are being sold to so often.