When the new range of iPhones was announced last month, Apple devotees will have experienced a burning desire to know what it felt like to hold one. In an attempt to satisfy that curiosity, many will have searched for unboxing videos on YouTube. These no-frills productions, often featuring just a presenter, a table and a cardboard box, give many people their first glimpse of a new product – and iPhones attract more interest than most. Within a fortnight, unboxings of the iPhone XS Max across the three biggest unboxing channels (Marques Brownlee, Unbox Therapy and iJustine) racked up nearly 10 million views. It seems that if you’re a YouTube creator seeking an audience, unboxing a product is a good way to find one.
“A couple of years ago I bought a CCTV system for my house,” says the anonymous presenter of the Geek Street YouTube channel (for some reason, many unboxers are publicity-shy.) “And I thought, OK, I’ll just give unboxing a go – and it’s been a phenomenal success! That video’s had over half a million views.”
What happens during an unboxing?
Nothing extraordinary happens in an unboxing video. A box is opened, the contents are removed and they're shown to the camera. But over the last few years, this mundane format has become the de facto way for people to envisage what it might be like to own a product, whether it's trainers or a coffee machine, chocolate eggs or a video game. The sustained popularity of unboxing videos in an age of fast-cut, action-packed online entertainment is almost mystifying. Is it merely down to us wanting to check out products before we buy them, or do these videos have hidden qualities that make them compelling?
On the most basic level, unboxing gives consumers basic product information that’s often absent from traditional forms of advertising: a true sense of size, shape and, crucially, how they look in normal lighting while being handled by a normal person. Removing the marketing gloss seems to cut through the hype. “It’s all very well saying that a laptop is amazing,” says the man behind Geek Street, “but I’m actually showing that laptop, and as a result I can be trusted a bit more. There’s been a definite interest in real people opening things and giving a real view of how a product works.”
Understanding the appeal of unboxing
But not all viewers intend to make purchases, or even want to own the products that are being shown. Back in 2014, a survey commissioned by Google revealed that some of the appeal of unboxing videos lies in sense of anticipation within them, regardless of what’s being showcased. In other words, watching someone else unpack and handle something new seems to scratch a subconscious itch. “To begin with, I never understood unboxing videos,” says Tom Honeyands, presenter of YouTube channel The Tech Chap. “They don’t really tell you much, and who cares what the box looks like? But now I realise that it gives people a glimpse of the experience of unboxing a new product. It’s almost like watching a kid open a present at Christmas.”
Our willingness to watch people unwrap consumer goods as a form of entertainment perhaps has its roots in TV shopping channels, where products are examined in a relaxed setting, at length and in close-up. But the unboxing craze on YouTube has been an eye-opener for brands, and they have muscled in either by creating their own videos or, to preserve a kind of authenticity, by sponsoring YouTube unboxers to do it for them. (Honeyands notes that they are usually happy to do this, as unboxing videos aren’t necessarily about reviewing the product.)
In contrast to shopping channels, however, some of the appeal of unboxing can be credited to the “just like you and me” quality of most YouTube stars. These are people who aren’t doing anything that we, the viewers, can’t do ourselves, and they’re almost reflecting our own interests and abilities back at us. This is particularly the case with children, according to Jackie Marsh, Professor of Education at Sheffield University. “Children like to watch things that are made by children for children,” she says. “This isn’t a new phenomena – the Bronte sisters were writing stories for each other and for children – but now it’s global.”
The boxing effect on children
As many parents will testify, children find unboxing videos particularly alluring. One particular video of a Kinder Surprise Egg being unboxed has accumulated over 320 million views to date, and hours can be whiled away watching EvanTubeHD unboxing Lego or FunToys Collector excavating plastic Disney toys. As is often the case with new behavioural patterns in children, there’s a certain degree of moral panic surrounding this – but Marsh puts it down to natural curiosity.
“I’m not saying that there are no issues around commercialism and consumption,” she says, “but studies show that while children ask for things they’ve seen unboxed, it’s no worse than if they’d watched an advert on television. As long as parents talk to children about the fact they can’t have everything they see, and as long as they’re not watching them for excessive lengths of time, I wouldn’t worry about it.”
Many of the unboxing videos made for children have a mesmeric quality and have evolved a very particular aesthetic. “Some of the most popular videos are done by women who have very shiny nail varnish on,” says Marsh, “and children mention that they really enjoy that.” That sense of being gently guided has parallels with so-called ASMR videos, where audiences derive sensory pleasure from watching reassuring scenes with comforting gestures and soothing rhythms of speech.
Taken to extremes, unboxing can almost become an art form in itself; the artist Alex Frost recently went viral with his series of “wet unboxing” videos, where objects such as fruit salad, shampoo and sandwiches are opened underwater. The appeal may be difficult to pinpoint, but the view counters don’t lie. People love it.
Perhaps unboxing videos give us a little more time and space in click-to-buy age. They allow people to consider purchases, much as they would in times gone by, when shop assistants had the time and inclination to demonstrate products and allow us to examine them. “These videos speak to very human interests,” says Professor Marsh. “Our interest in goods, in surprises – and, of course, in other human beings.”