20 Sep 2014

Inside the strange world of the unboxing video

From This Way Up, 12:15 pm on 20 September 2014

To the uninitiated, the unboxing video seems like a particularly inexplicable digital phenomenon. The genre is characterised by low production values, jerky camera angles and stilted dialogue, as a new gadget or designer handbag is unveiled and described for the watching audience. No celebrity endorsements or special effects; just ordinary people and a strictly POV aesthetic.

Simon Morton speaks to Mireille Silcoff, who's written about unboxing for the New York Times magazine. 'Unboxing is not so much a craze anymore as a genre – a manifestation of a new world of consumer expression', writes Silcoff. 'These videos have been around, notably in the world of tech, almost since YouTube went live in 2005... Today you can find unboxings for almost anything, although luxury items or pieces of expensive technology seem to make up a large percentage of the clips.'

So don't get the idea that unboxing's all about haute couture designer wear or top-end smartphones. Some of the most popular videos involve people opening children's toys that cost just a dollar or two. Take the enigmatic YouTube user called Disney Collector. Nobody knows who she is or what she looks like, but her videos have been watched more than 3 billion times, and her annual income's been estimated at up to US$13 million! Her most popular video, catchily entitled Angry Birds Toy Surprise Jake and the Never Land Pirates Disney Pixar Cars 2 Easter egg Spongebob, has racked up no less than 94 million hits.

So who is Disney Collector? Well, Mireille Silcoff thinks she may have found her. And as for an explanation of the unboxing video’s massive yet mysterious appeal, she writes, "I spoke to some Internet experts who saw the videos as everything from consumers’ taking back the night from untrustworthy marketers, to shoppers’ trying to humanise increasingly computer-based shopping through sharing, to aspirational thrill-seeking in recessionary, digitally mediated times."