Illustration by Diana Egan of an unboxing video on a home screen
Unpacking the unboxing trend. (Illustration by Diana Egan, University of Kentucky)

We Love Unboxing Videos, But Can We Really Say Why?

They are incredibly popular, forming their own subsection of YouTube. But what is it about the genre that has attracted so many viewers?

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Illustration by Diana Egan of an unboxing video on a home screen

They are incredibly popular, forming their own subsection of YouTube. But what is it about the genre that has attracted so many viewers?

Unboxing videos have become an established feature of the modern entertainment landscape. The premise of this incredibly popular genre is straightforward: A YouTube influencer buys a product and then opens it on camera. And despite the impossible simplicity of this concept, we can’t get enough of it. Our voracious appetites for the pleasure of watching people we don’t know opening products we don’t have created a huge demand for unboxing videos.

Seeing this demand, marketing agencies and YouTube influencers have responded with gusto. Since the videos first emerged, their popularity has grown and today have become a staple genre in entertainment, a go-to tool to be consulted before buying a product and an acknowledged part of any successful marketing strategy. So why is it that unboxing videos have been so successful at claiming this territory in our lives? What can we learn about ourselves from the fact that we love these videos?

Who Watches Unboxing Videos?

Unboxing is a versatile genre. Children can watch several popular toy unboxing channels like RyansWorld and FunToys Collector Disney Toys Review, which were two of the top 10 most-watched YouTube channels in the United States in 2018. Kids love to watch their favorite toys being unboxed, so much so that one reporter referred to the videos as “toddler crack.”

Unboxing videos are a formidable force in the children’s entertainment world to the point where parents, concerned that the videos engage in intense marketing toward their children and potentially impact their well-being, have called for increased regulations of the videos.

But unboxing isn’t confined to the world of children’s entertainment. Basically any product that can be unwrapped on camera is fair game. Adults flock to the internet to watch influencers unbox many different products, including makeup, tech gadgets, clothing and more.

As consumers, we love the practical utility of the videos that function as extremely detailed product reviews. Since the picture of the product comes from a third party rather than from the company that created the product, we feel like we are getting a behind-the-scenes look without the trappings of flattering camera angles and professional lighting.

If we’re being honest though, it’s not just the practical aspects of unboxing videos that hold the attention of the adult viewers. Just like the children whose parents can’t tear them away, adults are very entertained by unboxing videos.

Why Do We Watch Unboxing Videos?

So what is it about these videos that captivates us? Perhaps we just find them to be relaxing retreats from the high cognitive demands of adult life, no different than the other mindless forms of entertainment we consume daily. After all, it doesn’t take very much effort to watch someone open a package. It’s a concept and an action that is incredibly familiar to us and doesn’t require that we think as much as when watching a video with a fresh take or unfamiliar premise.

But it seems like unboxing videos must have some appeal besides mindless entertainment. Few video genres see the same explosion of popularity as unboxing videos, even if they require little mental engagement. Perhaps the other reason unboxing videos are attractive to us is simply because we want what’s in the boxes. We live in a consumer culture, and we get significant pleasure out of buying things that we want.

Seeing influencers who are ostensibly “just like us” opening a product could make us feel, at least over the course of the video, like we too own that product. The vicarious appeal of entertainment is definitely not a new concept. In much the same way that we might be attracted to movie characters who embody qualities we wish we had, we might love unboxing videos because they show us products we want.

But it’s also possible that what attracts us to these videos isn’t the product but the process. Maybe unboxing videos tap into the same feeling we get on Christmas morning when we see all the presents under the tree; the anticipation and prospect of discovery is more important than what is even inside the box. We don’t get this feeling from the makeup or gadget inside, but from the addictive experience of mystery and expectation, converted to discovery and satisfaction.

Adages like “It’s what’s on the inside that counts” and “Don’t judge a book by its cover” have become outdated, and marketers are increasingly aware of this insight in the midst of the unboxing trend. Just as the seasoned gift-giver knows to invest in the “in the moment” experience of the gift as well as in the actual value of the gift itself, the clever marketer knows to invest in the packaging just as much as, if not more than the product. More emphasis is placed on creating boxes that are colorful on the inside and the outside, incorporating brand logos within the box, filling it with attractive materials and placing the product in an ideal way.

The Takeaway

So, what it is about unboxing videos that so attracts us? Are we, as members of a consumer culture, actually not all that excited about the products we consume? Or is it our love for the products themselves that drives our love for the videos? Or maybe it’s neither of these things, and we are just an overworked and tired population looking for the release of mindlessly familiar entertainment. Perhaps all of these things are true simultaneously.

Ultimately, it feels like we can learn a lot about culture from what people choose to entertain themselves with. And once we find a theory we like, it’s certainly tempting to close ourselves off to all the others. For example, it is certainly more useful to lean into the idea that a culture finds products less interesting than their packaging if you’re a marketer working on an unboxing campaign. But it doesn’t stand to reason that alternative interpretations aren’t more useful in other scenarios.

Even though unboxing videos are, on the surface, simple forms of entertainment, their appeal is multifaceted and complex. And it is here that our precious old adage can still hold true: When it comes to any of life’s complex phenomena, we can’t judge a book by its cover.

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