The Playful Den


Has an increase in unboxing and collectible toys made the toy market less playful?

Sometime ago I was asked to do some radio to comment on the phenomena of unboxing.

It’s a funny thing doing radio interviews – you go back to back from one local station to another finding yourself in the middle of Wales one second and over in London the next. I was invited based on my expertise in kid-culture where unboxing videos had seeped into kids media like an unstoppable ooozing goo, relentless, sticky and yes, kind of gross depending how you’re evaluating it. I was all geared up for some intellectual discussions on the impact of this content on culture and consumerism, but the reality of local radio and a wider audience meant I was actually there just to explain what unboxing was, it was an odd morning where I had somehow become unboxing’s instructional spokesperson, which went something like this: 

 How did this all start? 

“The origins of unboxing lie in the technology market – Apple iphones in particular made for excellent products to watch being opened due to the aesthetically satifastyfiying packaging and played a big role in the growth of the unboxing phenomenon. Today all kinds of things are unboxed online one of which is toys”. 

 But what exactly happens in these videos? 

 “A person films themselves opening a product. They remove the packaging layer by layer and slowly reveal the product inside talking through every detail”

 But why? 

 “Well, people like to watch these both for review purposes to help them decide if they want to buy the product and then also because we get hooked in by the dopamine hit – it’s a bit like vicariously opening a present” 

 So they’re just looking at a product come out the box?

 “Um, yes, that’s the general jist of it”

 But why? 

 “Erm…I think people get hooked into the suspense and excitement of the reveal, a big part of these videos is often the person’s reaction who is doing the unboxing. Many products are now what’s called ‘blind’ the presenter doesn’t know what’s coming”

 But, seriously, Emma…why? 

 Oh, I don’t know it’s all a bit silly really isn’t it. Can we cut to Leeds now so I can have my lunch soon? 

 I may have exaggerated the ending for your amusement, I’m still available for anyone who needs me, my radio career is not over yet (to be honest it’s not really begun). But once you start to get a few layers in and dissect unboxing videos, it does all seem a bit, how shall we say – empty? Or if we’re really going for it – excessively capitalist? The mesmerizing gaze we have on these objects considering them in depth like they are important historical artefacts seems a bit shallow when you consider what’s been surveyed might be a mass market toy or phone. How did we end up in a place where we have such an expanse of high quality content available but yet many adults and kids choose to put their eyeballs on watching people open stuff? 

Let me acknowledge how ‘mumsy’ I sound right now. Am I just an updated version of the ‘TV will rot their brains’ mum of yesteryear? Maybe, but I can’t help it. I am open to my kids browsing a variety of content but these videos were cut out of our life many many years a go they turned my son into a wide eyed obnoxious zombie within minutes. I should say that was almost a decade ago, creative has moved on beyond hands and plastic eggs and has become more about the personality of the presenter and the human interaction more, Ryans Toys being the most obvious example to cite. I understand why kids enjoy these videos, I can see the psychology clearly. It’s an exciting cognitive exercise for kids to imagine what’s coming next, to guess what might come out the box / egg / bag (insert any shape you like because they all probably now exist) and they are delivered by kids who seem like fun, trusted friends, it’s a bit like a playdate where everyone’s invited to come and see and play. Plus the content they are buzzing over is from the heart of kid-culture – toys, characters, stories and play. These things matter to the presenters and they matter to the audience, there’s a shared joy. 

Plus who doesn’t love a surprise? A surprise is a beautiful thing, that rush of joy and excitement from finding the unexpected in your hand, just for you. Except, it’s not, is it? The only person that receives anything is the content creator, whilst the viewer is left with a dopamine comedown and an awakened yearning to hot foot it to the toy shop. Isn’t this just the same as TV advertising I hear you ask? Kind of. But also not really. It’s way more intense and doesn’t bookend the entertainment – it is the entertainment. 

Legislation is changing a lot on this type of content, there is already movement here and rightly so. This article in TechCrunch states: YouTube will also remove “overly commercial content” from YouTube Kids, in a move that also follows increased pressure from consumer advocacy groups and childhood experts, who have long since argued that YouTube encourages kids to spend money (or rather, beg their parents to do so).

Let’s focus instead on how the boom in unboxing content and kid-creators has influenced the design of toys – has it led to an innovation explosion or a dumbing down of ideas and repetitive concepts? 

LOL Surprise was the first toy brand to move in fast and hard with a doll innovation that intertwined perfectly with the rise of toy based creator content. With my inventor and brand hat on, this opportunistic innovation from MGA is outstanding. The branding and aesthetics are fresh and contemporary with a biting attitude that pushes the envelope but with a play pattern that retains fun and playfulness. My daughter enjoyed these dolls and still does, we don’t buy them any more but she goes back to them and enjoys the funny quirky personalities. As a parent when this stage hit I quickly (after the fist one) loathed the excess packaging and on one occasion I picked her up from a LOL themed birthday party and witnessed a mass opening which made me feel so physically ill I only bought the characters second-hand on eBay from then on. I just didn’t want her to associate such a rush of joy with something so wasteful. And what happened next was quite curious. I found that my daughter actually played deeper with her collection of dolls that she hadn’t unboxed. Although she had some dolls with extra value attributed, when it came to the actual play, it was fair game and those dolls who’d turned up sans giant plastic orb, seemed to inspire greater imaginative play with more of an open invitation to do whatever she wanted with them. They were a bit like interesting supporting characters, which as we all know, are often the ones which intrigue us and connect with us more personally than the mainstream heroes and who really make stories come to life. 

My experience as a mum in the LOL uprising and what followed next as other brands scrambled to re create this buzz, made me look around at the toy market and ask this question – is an over-focus on collecting and unboxing reducing play opportunities? By zooming in on how products are discovered, does this mean once that’s over what happens next feels a bit flat? Or on the flip-side, does a memorable out of box experience means a child might value the toy more and have more motivation to treasure and play with it? 

Many parents drowning in cast aside blind box fads, may find the latter hard to agree with, though I’m sure it’s true of some experiences. I do think how we are introduced to a product impacts how we feel about it and I think toy packaging has been a missed opportunity for decades. Toys wired into harsh sharp plastic, smothered by their packs communicate ‘no one is going to steal or mess with me’ and less ‘I’m here to play and be loved by you’. So often in product design and in advertising, we do not treat children with the same quality of experience as we do for adult consumers. I think it’s an important part of teaching gratitude and how to care for our things, that we have an easy enjoyable experience revealing them, and mum getting a bit sweary with scissors, cutting her thumb on plastic on christmas morning doesn’t exactly scream – treasure this forever. So in this context, I’m all for more innovative out of the box experiences, especially ones that marry sustainability and joy. 

 The mass toy market, is of course a numbers game, products must be commercially viable to take to market. Mainstream popularity in multiple markets is the north star and critically brands and products need to appease retailers, who are typically shackled closely to trends, demographics and categories. Unboxing exploded and unboxable toys fed this opportunity. Today, blind bags, surprises and collecting have become a staple of how kids, parents and gifters decode what’s for them, what’s cool, what has value and what feels contemporary. The mechanics of unboxing products have become conventions of contemporary design – in other words, we’re in deep and this train isn’t slowing down anytime soon. 

 One of the most sought after toys last Christmas was the Magic Mixes Magic Cauldron from Moose Toys, which for a mere £75 you can unbox and magic up your own plush creature who emerges in an actual puff of smoke! This represents an evolved form of incorporating a surprise into the play, where is not about opening the pack to see what’s inside, but where the entire play experience itself makes it happen. I would be fascinated to know the play value of this product, it certainly has the big wow factor and looks amazing in content, but what about after the reveal? Putting my mum hat on, I’m going to take a punt and guess that not that long after the reveal, the components become very lovely, but rather expensive, bath toys. Perhaps I’m being dismissive though as one reviewer stated: Was the price paid, worth the product? Probably not. Was it worth the smile on her face, absolutely! Which makes me wonder if the unboxing movement is feeding millennial parents’ desire to ‘collect memories’ – photographable moments of intense joy and delight. Perhaps in a world which feels dark and harsh for today’s kids to grow up in, these examples of extreme joy-peaks appeal to those who evaluate price less on longevity of the product and more on banking and recording a unique memory.  

To wrap this up (sorry, I couldn’t resist), I believe unboxing content has both facilitated innovation and stagnated it. I’ve already mentioned some bold moves inspired from the genre, but at the intersection of my strategy, innovator and parent view point, I’m a bit bored with it all. And I can’t disentangle myself from how it juxtaposes with raising a waste-aware generation. If the toy market continues to tick the unboxing box, we are going to end up with a market that over indexes on the same play patterns – in fact, I’d say we’re already there. And I believe what kids need right now is to try new things, to find tools, props and experiences that bring their own ideas to life, inspire their own creativity – they have experienced a chunk of their formative years in isloation, it is them that need unboxing. So let me propose a possibly radical, possibly old school suggestion, that we prioritise toy design from the start point of how children want and need to play and not from the point of mass consumption. What new ideas might emerge from that? And whilst we’re here how about we shake off the restrictions of demographic conventions and category rules. Generation Alpha are desperate to feel free, express themselves and make sense of the world they are growing up in. I think it’s a time where the toy market can elevate to a place that does more of that. 

 I think it’s time to stop dopamine dosing and start a playful revolution.