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Opening toys is fun, pure and simple. Even the most jaded consumer gets a little thrill from the first time she or he gets to unpeel the plastic wrap, untwist the twist ties, and unbox a new gadget. But the unself-conscious joy and excitement associated with revealing a new toy is best expressed by children, as the increasing popularity of unboxing videos on YouTube indicates. In these videos, young consumers literally record themselves opening, examining, explaining, and starting to play with new toys, and YouTube users can’t get enough. Such trends have quickly attracted the attention of marketers—especially those whose target market includes those same young consumers who love the very idea of unboxing so much.

Lo-res_42-33653126-SThe unboxing genre accounts for approximately 1.1 billion views on YouTube, mostly in the form of amateur, enthusiastic videos. But in conjunction with the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Disney also hosted a marathon YouTube unboxing session: 18 hours of videos of people across the world opening Star Wars–related toys and merchandise.

Target also has hired some of the most popular young unboxers from YouTube, signing them to appear in exclusive videos hosted on its site. Evan from EvanTubeHD and Audrey from Radio JH Audrey thus earn remuneration for starring in videos in which they open Shopkins trucks, Star Wars and Avengers figures, and Lego collections (among other things). They mention at the start of their short features that Target has provided the toys, but otherwise, the content focuses on the details and specifics of the toys themselves.

Rather than human unboxers, Toys ‘R Us uses stop motion animation to depict some of its toys unboxing other toys. In the “Toys Unboxing Toys” series, the Scottie dog token from a Monopoly box “chews” the zip ties off a Nerf blaster; Playmobile police investigate the scene when they open the box containing a Meccanoid robot; and on T-Rex toy pleads with another type of T-Rex to let him out of his box. The toys joke and play with one another, creating a silly, fun environment that ultimately leads to the thrilling release of the unboxed toy.

For some viewers, the videos come off as unprofessional and rambling. The amateur versions in particular involve lengthy spans of footage with little inherent entertainment value. But they also honestly reflect how children play, such that they seem to appeal strongly to other children. That is, the target audience is frequently entranced by the images of other children opening and playing with toys they might like to have themselves.

Because of this powerful appeal, some parents and consumer groups question whether the videos need to be better regulated as a form of advertising. They are not subject to the ad blockers that parents can apply to their children’s YouTube content, nor are they officially registered as advertising. Because children have difficulty distinguishing between entertainment content and marketing content, several groups have filed complaints with the Federal Trade Commission, alleging that the unboxing videos are advertising, masquerading as entertainment, especially when they are sponsored by retailers or toy manufacturers.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What is “unboxing?”
  2. How is unboxing being used to market products?
  3. Which of the 4Es are being actuated with unboxing?

Source: Robert D. Hof, “‘Unboxing’ Videos a Gift to Marketers,” The New York Times, December 6, 2015.