To unbox is to consume

Unboxing. To many people, this somewhat awkward phrase connotes the dreaded move in day, with lots of dust and stale pizza involved. Maybe a six-pack or two. To the folks at YouTube, it translates to eyeballs and dollars, lots and lots of dollars. Type unboxing into the search bar of that content provider and you will see stretched before you a vast field of consumers celebrating that ultimate climax of the online shopping experience – the unboxing.

But why the seismic wave of viewership? What could possibly be the benefit to watching them? Google first noted the term ‘unboxing’ in 2006, a mere blip on the scale of urban vernacular. Today, they are a peculiar yet insanely popular video genre — viewers watch nearly 6 billion hours of these videos each month. The genesis of these seem to be placed upon the ‘haul videos’ we saw first created by teens years ago, full of excited young girls unpacking bags of fast fashion finds from H&M, or Forever 21 with salacious abandon. And that seemed somewhat understandable, knowing the need for validation and approval from peer groups for young girls of that age. However, this incredibly large and voracious cousin knows no age or product limit.

No, here are grown men unpacking their go-pros, or iPhones, and grown women purring seductively over Prada purses, slowly undressed from layers of exquisite packaging. And of course, there are the oceans of the much discussed toy porn, or toy unboxing videos that seem to mesmerize the under 2 set. All with millions and millions of consumer views. When questioned, viewers provide some good rational reasons for watching. Moms speak to wanting to see if their children seemed to like the toy before they went ahead and purchased it. Others wanted to check out the variety of playing options that were showcased, to make sure it was worth their while. Men spoke of wanting to see the products they desired up close and unwrapped, to see if they looked to be of quality. Women gave the same response about their viewership of makeup boxes, or high-end purses. Well thought out personal, investigative journalism as it were, just of things that make people go weak in the knees.

Quality control sounds fine (and certainly laudable), but I think it goes deeper…. I think it reflects a shift in our culture of consumerism that ignited to a white hot level during the roaring mid-00’s. We are a culture that prizes consumerism and acquisition. We want things. We desire things. And we celebrate those who can acquire things. However, two huge events have converged to spark this particular fire. One, the recession thwarted many people’s ability to obtain things. And two, the abundance of ‘things’ brought about by the proliferation of social media. Never before has so much been available with so little effort. Thus, like porn, unboxing videos present the viewer with next best thing – consumption without risk. With so many things available to us, and yet, so many things limited by our income; videos, Pinterest boards, Keep sites, etc. let us collect images, and participate in perhaps the most delicious part of shopping: anticipation, and the delicious foreplay of unveiling. Now, Millennials have been accused of fauxerism – looking but not buying. But in a world where we can be Kim Kardashian for a day by playing a video game, or take a vacation on a Jamaican beach through a VR device, why not revel in the experience without the prize? Experiences have been trumping ownership among the millennials for some time now, so the idea of celebrating the catch and the kill without a cost seems to make sense. Couple this with the rapid growth of products we don’t need to own to enjoy. From streaming music to online entertainment, to Zipcars and more, those things that we once bought and owned have become ephemeral, and no less enjoyable. Tangibility is not mandatory anymore. To consume has a new definition. And desire never disappoints.


The mandate for retailers? Desire for the actual act of possession has become a much higher bar. The actual close of the sale merits greater payoff – not just a thank you or a walk around a counter. Every element needs to be thought through, and most importantly, the final unveiling needs to be personal and celebratory. Those brands (hello, net-a-porter) that take great care with presentation and packaging, and really highlight that element of the unpacking experience will be ahead of the game. This can be true for both online and bricks and mortar retailers; surprise and delight, or gamification, will need to be employed to really incite a final purchase, to close, as it where. Something unique and desirable has to take place between the cardboard and the tissue paper; that moment, like unlocking a hotel door, has to be exquisite and fulfilling. (And any toddler will tell you; the box is the best part ☺)

I would welcome any thoughts…..

lynn@shinescout.com