What We Talk About When We Talk About YouTube Unboxing Videos

A deep dive into the internet's most confounding and popular trend.

Hazel Quimpo worries what her 4-year-old son is learning when he watches — perhaps compulsively and certainly repetitively — unboxing videos on YouTube. She’s aware that these clips of Shopkins and Paw Patrol toys emerging from cardboard or paper are very common and insanely popular. How popular? In 2014, CNN reported that YouTube viewers were watching nearly six billion hours of the unboxing content every month. And there’s no reason to believe that number is going down, at least not in the Quimpo house. So, Hazel worries about consumerist agitprop, raising an acquisitive plastic hoarder, and, well, the internet.

“The whole thing is very, very commercial,” Hazel says. “Obviously the YouTube people are being sent all of these toys from sponsors.”

There’s no denying that many of the YouTubers do get sent toys by manufacturers or that unboxing videos often are, if not outright advertising, advertorial in nature. There’s also no denying that little children are poorly equipped to understand transactional media. Laws limiting advertising against children’s content exist largely because kids don’t have an understanding of what’s called “persuasive intent” in advertising. Adults understand that drinking Diet Coke won’t get us invited to glamorous parties on planes — kids, not so much. This creates an additional layer of confusion around unboxing video because parents watching unboxing videos over their children’s shoulders may still fail to understand why the clips appeal to their kids. And that’s for worse as well as better.

Paul and Shannon Stripling, are the hands and voices behind “PSTOYREVIEWS,” a channel that attracts millions of viewers with videos like “Shopkins Season One Palooza Haul Round 6 Unboxing Opening” and “Boo Cutest Dog Surprise Plush Mystery Blind Box Series 1 Gund Toy Review.” They started posting to YouTube for fun because they enjoyed it and they were already collecting toys. The scale of their operation has changed and they do make money on their work now, but it would be both unfair and inaccurate to call them shills. Paul and Shannon review toys that are interesting to them or that they’ve purchased to be a part of their various collections. The select and buy the vast majority of the toys they feature themselves.

“Over 95 percent of the toys that we open are toys that Shannon and I have bought ourselves either at local stores or online,” Paul says, adding that he doesn’t think unboxing videos succeed by fetishizing consumption or possession. “Parents have sent videos to us where their kids pretend that they’re unboxing toys,” he explains. “They’ll just grab their own toys that they already have, and they wrap them up in notebook paper. They just enjoy opening it. It’s the play value of being able to open something. Play-doh surprise eggs were a huge thing, and that’s where people would take a toy they already own then surround it with Play-doh and open it.”

Paul’s argument might sound convenient, but that doesn’t make it wrong. In fact, some academics think that he’s on to something.

“When you think about the huge changes in media, the kneejerk reaction is to distrust it, because it’s new and different,” says Dr. Pam Rutledge, director of the Media Psychologist Research Center. “It’s very helpful to think: ‘Is this really fundamentally a different behavior than we had before?’”

For Rutledge, the answer is an unequivocal no. Kids, she argues, get obsessive about stuff — they read the same book over and over, watch the same movie repeatedly, and play the same games all the time — and unboxing videos are just another focus of obsession. In other words, she believes that the “stuff” kids are seeing in these videos isn’t the products but the action of opening them. The unboxing is the thing. Parents struggle to see this because they’ve been trained to look at products, both as consumers and as people suspicious of marketers. Rutledge points to other popular internet videos as proof that kids see something different.

“They watch incredibly intently while people use a Play-doh knife or a squish machine, and then they replicate those behaviors when they’re playing themselves. They’ve watched it, and they’ve been able to assimilate that kind of learning.”

Younger children who may be drawn to unboxing videos may be learning, but the people who make the videos are capitalizing on that for money, no matter how much they enjoy their jobs. That same CNN report in 2014 quoted one anonymous unboxer who claimed to make about 2 to 4 dollars per 1,000 views. That sounds like a modest amount, but these channels are filled with thousands of videos with thousands of views. Even if each of Paul and Shannon’s over 3,000 unboxing videos only received 300,000 views each, they would still make nearly 3.9 million dollars off of the work. And that’s just a very, very rough estimate: their most popular videos are well above 3 million views per video.

Studies have attempted to discover the year in which kids can make the distinction between “persuasive intent” and “selling.” Recognizing a straightforward television spot for a cheeseburger from Burger King, for example, is easier to recognize as an advertisement for Burger King than a video that makes a Burger King burger out of Play-Doh and then has a Paw Patrol toy/character eat it. There is conflicting information about when and how children develop the ability to recognize that insidious form of advertising, but it’s certainly not before the age of 11 or 12, and even then, one study claims that only 40 percent of kids at or over that age can recognize that type of advertising.

The wide variety of unboxing videos ensure that there’s unboxing content for children of all ages. For every “Paw Patrol Season 1 Peppa Pig Unbox Box New Great Kids Fun Bark WOW LOL Shopkins Surprise OMG Play-Doh” video, there are Harry Potter loot crates with deep-cut swag like Honeydukes chocolates, makeup reviews for tweens to teach them how to buy cheaper versions of the expensive stuff, or reviews of Marvel Cinematic Universe DVD collections.

These videos, quite clearly, aren’t made for 6-year-olds. They’re made for pre-teens and teens, and occasionally, adults.

Tim Burrow, a law enforcement consultant and father of twin teenage daughters, recognizes that the videos are, on some level, advertisements. He also recognizes they have some practical value. He uses his girls’ YouTube histories to figure out what gifts they might like. In so doing, he is implicitly acknowledging that, as teenagers, his kids have been trained to see the products rather than the activity in the videos. “Things that they aren’t willing to say that they want are there,” he says. “I can understand why they might want something and not be willing to say so because it might be too expensive or too frivolous.”

Burrow’s experience represents, in many ways, the reason for Hazel Quimpo’s concerns. For her part, Quimpo does work at a company that focuses on limiting screen time for kids and pushing them toward making real-world connections, not toys. Naturally, Quimpo doesn’t want her son to learn that expensive, frivolous things are good to have. She wants him to value experiences and skills, which is why his big Christmas present is six months of karate lessons, something he has been asking for and is at least tangentially born out of his love for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. While it’s a smart present, it also doesn’t resolve the open question about whether or not her son is watching unboxing videos for the products or the unboxing — or if that distinction even matters. She can ask, of course, but can she trust the answer of a little kid? (“He definitely focuses on wanting new toys,” she says.) Can the kid reasonably be expected to know?

At the end of the day, the fact that these videos have received such an ordinate amount of attention by the media over several years may point to the fact that many adults, especially those of young children, just don’t understand them (also, the media hates having to compete for advertising dollars). Unboxing videos vary but ultimately exist neither as advertisements or instructionals or as narratives. They are, confoundingly, a combination of all three — and that’s true regardless of creator intent or parental interpretation.