Vicarious (adjective): Experienced in the imagination through the feelings or actions of another person. (Oxford Dictionary)
Two manicured hands hold the colorful Play-Doh Sparkle Princess box, turning it this way and that in front of the camera. The young woman — who could be a stand-in for a cool big sister or a babysitter — merrily describes the shiny toy that will be unwrapped for our viewing pleasure. Suddenly, I’m 4 years old again: All I know is that I want her to get the toy out of the box already so that I — uh, she — can play with it.
Or do I? I can’t decide whether I’m more thrilled by the anticipation or whether it’s the ultimate satisfaction of watching her expertly shape the Play-Doh into beautiful, sparkly dresses on the Disney princess figures that is driving me to watch this video to the very end (it’s actually research for this article, but still).
Melissa Lima, better known to her nearly 2.5 million YouTube subscribers as DisneyCollector, has done this many times before. The box is opened, and each element of the toy inside is slowly removed, examined from every possible angle, and described in detail. It’s incredibly seductive, in a very innocent-yet-addictive way.
Of course, my reaction to the Disney princess video was nothing compared to the iPhone 6 unboxing videos I stayed up watching after I ordered my new phone. There might have been actual drool involved there.
Help me. I’ve fallen down the very deep, consumerist hole of unboxing videos, and I may need help climbing out.
“Unboxing” videos? When did this happen?
These days, you can’t swing a cat on YouTube without running into an unboxing video. They are a peculiar yet insanely popular video genre — viewers watch nearly 6 billion hours of these videos each month. The videos are strictly about taking a product out of its box and showing it to the viewers at home.
The genre supposedly started with tech products back in 2006, when a company filmed the unboxing of the Nokia E61 cellphone. Google Trends shows that interest in the term “unboxing” began in late 2006 and has increased fairly steadily since then.
Here, strictly for historical perspective, is the Ur-unboxing video:
The first unboxing video. They grow up so fast. (unbox.it/YouTube)
My favorite part of that whole video, as someone who is currently owned by an iPhone 6, is when he holds up what appears to be a brick and gushes about how thin it is. Man, those were good times. At least you didn’t have to worry about the phone bending.
It’s a pretty dull unboxing, though, considering the production values of more recent ventures, like this hilarious Blue Man Group “unboxing” of the iPhone 6:
I’ve thought about using a saw to open these things, too. (Blue Man Group/YouTube)
These days, there are unboxing videos for almost every product, nearly every thing that is available for purchase. There are unboxing videos for live geckos.
But why would anyone want to watch someone else unwrap and enjoy something?
The Nokia video was charmingly called a “ceremony” back then, yet little has really changed about the format of unboxing a product. It is a ceremony. There is a sensuality — there, I said it — to watching someone open a box and slowly examine all the elements of the product, from the inner and outer wrappings to the actual product itself.
“You design a ritual of unpacking to make the product feel special. Packaging can be theater, it can create a story.” — Jonathan Ives, Apple designer
And you can watch these videos over and over again, or look for others to satisfy your consumer itch. If you’re into opening presents, every day can seem like Christmas if you know where to look for these videos.
Of course, anything that picks up enough steam on the Internet is ripe for parody.
Put those twist ties someplace safe. And make sure they’re all facing in the same direction. (CoolGearReviews/YouTube)
Another reason for their popularity, I think, is that these videos are unvarnished and show the products exactly as the consumer will experience them, as opposed to the glossy, heavily retouched commercials made by the manufacturer. There isn’t a single person on the planet who hasn’t experienced the disappointment of buying what looked like a really amazing product, only to find that, in reality, it was cheaply made. The majority of unboxing videos are endearingly homemade ventures, and I would imagine that most people who want to experience a product by proxy find it comforting that the video maker is just like us. It’s a much more immersive experience than a written review, and because the video is made by a nonprofessional, it’s an experience we can imagine ourselves having.
And let’s face it: It’s also a socially acceptable way to ogle a new or high-end product. Even better: It’s consumption without risk. Edwin Martinez, a self-described “camera geek,” says, “Considering the cost of some cameras, it really amounts to … a sort of Internet camera porn. The unboxing videos are both to prepare for the one I buy and to enjoy the ones I never will.”
And for those who do plan on buying, it’s a way to see exactly what you will be getting when that glorious box shows up at your own front door. Not to get all girly on you, but I happen to find makeup “hauls,” the cosmetics equivalent of unboxing videos, very useful. Since most cosmetics are wrapped to within an inch of their lives and you can’t see what the product actually looks like, it’s very helpful to have someone unwrap the lipstick you want to buy and show you what it looks like on a real face.
Oh, did I mention that it’s also lucrative for the videomakers? They’re not shills for the products they’ve purchased; they make money off of ads that run before the video or that pop up while the video is playing. The trick is to make the videos engaging and well-shot enough so that people will stay tuned long enough for an ad to appear. Some of the more popular unboxing video makers even get new products on loan or for free from manufacturers. Most, however, purchase their own samples.
So it’s really just to see what’s in the box?
Not always. One of the reasons Lima’s Disney Collector channel is so popular, I believe, is that she actually plays with the toy in her videos, showing us the possibilities of the fun we’ll have when we finally buy it for ourselves. I certainly wouldn’t have thought to put a bow on Princess Anna’s dress. But now I have something to aim for.
Or maybe it will suffice to just watch the person in the video play with it. Because, as some kids are undoubtedly thinking when they watch, “Then I don’t have to actually clean up after myself and put the toy away.” Because, as the parents of the millions of kids who watch toy unboxing videos might be thinking, “That’s one less Lego for me to step on in the middle of the night.” As a parent, I can’t decide if that’s a relief or incredibly sad. It seems to me to be an incredibly passive way to “play.”
But if you’re the kid, and Mom and Dad say “no” to your hourly request for the latest pack of Pokémon cards, you can always hop onto YouTube and watch someone else unwrap a pristine pack. You get the vicarious thrill of perhaps finding an ultra-rare card, and you didn’t have to spend a dime of your allowance.
So I’ve unboxed the term “unboxing videos” for you. Use them to entertain your kids (but not too much). Use them as research before you buy a new whatever-you’re-planning-to-buy. And, by all means, use them to save yourself some money instead of blowing your budget on that really expensive gadget. Maybe watching an unboxing video will be all it takes to sate your consumer desire.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, there are Play-Doh princess gowns to be made.