Why I went to see a nine-year-old unboxing herself in a shopping centre

"Unboxers" - YouTubers who open product packaging - can make millions. What's the attraction?

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My first concern is that the 9-year-old YouTube sensation has been trapped inside the giant plastic drum for too long.

It’s the first day of the February half-term and I am surrounded by children at London’s second largest shopping centre. A man in a baby pink t-shirt with a blonde boyband haircut is telling us it will be “just a few minutes” until our “favourite YouTuber” appears. Behind him is a giant upright drum emblazoned with an image of a doll and the words “Let me out of here!”. The man instructs us to cheer. I glance into the crowd and see a weary mother roll her eyes.

I am here to watch the “unboxing” of an “unboxer”. If you don’t know what means, it’s not too late to turn around now. Over the last ten years, unboxing videos have gained immense popularity on YouTube. In each video the YouTuber in question (the unboxer) will open up a product on camera – be it a toy, electronic, or fashion item. That’s it. I can’t stress enough how much that is it.

Despite their simplicity, unboxing videos are viral sensations, and have made 9-year-old Tiana, of Toys And Me, an internet celebrity. The man-in-the-pink-shirt begins to count down from ten. At “1”, a tiny fist punches out from the drum. Tiana appears. A small child lets out a high-pitched scream.

Tiana is here to promote the UK launch of “L.O.L Surprise!” – a collectible doll designed for the YouTube generation. The seven layers of packaging around the toy reveal a different surprise (stickers, clothes, and accessories for the doll) as the child unwraps.

“They’re watching unboxing so we thought perhaps they'd like to do some unboxing themselves,” explains Andrew Laughton, the managing director of MGA Entertainment, the company behind L.O.L Surprise! and the 2001 revolutionary doll, Bratz.

“As a 50-year-old person, it's a whole new world for me.” Laughton explains that MGA’s founder, Isaac Larian, watched unboxing videos late at night and realised that he could design a toy around the phenomenon. “That's what he's famous for, doing something different.” To our left, and behind us, children are opening and playing with the toy.

Capitalising on unboxing seems a very intelligent move. “Over the past twelve months we've seen a huge increase in children coming into stores looking for toys they've seen on YouTube,” explains Rebecca Naish, head of marketing at the toy shop The Entertainer. There are over 55 million search results for “unboxing” on YouTube and the most popular – “Super Giant Golden Surprise Egg - Spiderman Egg Toys Opening + 3 Kinder Surprise Eggs Unboxing” – has 312,663,724 views. Tiana has nearly 4 million subscribers on her channel and her own most popular video has over 209 million views. In the near future, she will upload the footage of herself being unboxed to her channel. It’s easy to see how these views will translate into cold hard cash.

The beauty of creating toys for unboxing viewers, then, is not simply having a target market of millions; it’s also having a very easy way to advertise to them. Despite not paying for a single television advertisement when they launched in the States, Laughton explains that retailers are now air-freighting stock into the country in a bid to keep up with demand. “We didn’t do any what we would call ‘traditional marketing’. We never really told anybody about it apart from on YouTube.” When I ask whether influential YouTubers, such as Tiana, are paid to unbox the toy, he says “not necessarily. People just do it as a little hobby.”

Unboxing, however, is no longer just a hobby. The highest-earning YouTuber of 2014 made $4.9m just by unboxing Disney toys. The second most-viewed YouTube channel of 2016 was Ryan ToysReview and it is estimated that the 5-year-old earns over $13m a year. Many popular unboxing channels are sent gifts by PRs to unwrap and influencer marketing – the payment of prominent YouTubers to feature products – is common. Laughton, however, views YouTube unboxing as “more honest” than traditional marketing. “It's a slightly more honest way of communicating because we're not actually communicating; we're leaving it in the hands of somebody else. It's totally raw… and that’s the scary thing because it’s not in your control.”

The doll inside the package, then, does still matter – though is not nearly as revolutionary as the packaging. I have one – allegedly called Sis Swing. In the vein of Bratz she wears skimpy clothes and plenty of make-up. If I feed her water through her little bottle, she pees.

 

A photo posted by L.O.L. Surprise! (@lolsurprise) on

“It's a traditional doll collectible,” says Laughton. “The actual process of the kid enjoying taking something apart is the main focus for it and the product at the end is something that we could do in any case, we could do product.” 

I have no doubt that over the next few weeks L.O.L Surprise! dolls will become a coveted collectible. By capitalising on YouTube trends and abandoning traditional advertising, MGA will undoubtedly make a healthy profit. It's safe to say, then, that it pays to think outside of the box. 

Images via Carousel PR

Amelia Tait is a freelance journalist, and was previously the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer. She tweets at @ameliargh