Making Sense of the Strange YouTube Unboxing Trend
Philosopher Jean Baudrillard can help us understand this odd online phenomenon.
This article was originally published by i-D UK.
Few philosophers have had as great of an influence on popular culture or explain our postmodern world as well as Jean Baudrillard. His analysis of the media, technology, and contemporary culture was ahead of its time and his greatest work, Simulacra and Simulation, inspired The Matrix, Charlie Kaufman's Synecdoche, New York, and many of Adam Curtis’s films. But Baudrillard’s death in 2007 meant that he never lived to witness the postmodern affliction that validates his theories more than any other: unboxing videos.
Unboxing videos are pretty self-explanatory: a person buys a product and films themselves removing it from its packaging before uploading it to YouTube, where other people waste their lives watching and commenting on this bizarre ritual. Unlike haul videos, unboxing vids don’t usually feature an on-screen personality. Instead, they show a first-person — a disembodied pair of hands fondling a boxed-up product with a faceless narrator.
The curious thing about unboxing videos is that they aren’t necessarily displays of pure luxury fetishism. While many show off the latest iPhone or rare sneakers, one of the most successful unboxing vloggers trades exclusively in cheap children’s toys. For DisneyCollectorBR, a 20-something Brazilian based in upstate New York, unboxing videos aren’t an outpouring of compulsive consumerism; they’re a well-calculated business venture. In the attention economy of the internet, toddlers are low-hanging fruit that will view a single video multiple times, offering high returns for little invested effort. This sort of content serves a clearly defined purpose, but many unboxing videos are uploaded by anonymous users and garner view numbers too meager to monetize. The motivations of these unboxing diehards are less clear.
Unboxing videos are an example of Baudrillard’s theories of simulacra, simulation, and hyperreality. A simulacrum is an image or a representation of someone or something. A copy, essentially. Symbols, signs, and photographs can be simulacra, as can videos, and one of the earliest and finest examples of simulacra are religious icons because they depict things that either never had an original (i.e. never existed) or ones where the original image no longer exists.
This part is key to Baudrillard’s theories because he argues that postmodern societies are unable to experience reality as it really is because our perception has been so distorted by the media and technology that we can no longer separate the real from the imagined. Instead, we drift around in a state of hyperreality, where fact and delusion blur into one. It’s a lot like the Matrix only less banal, because you can’t simply tear away the deceptive membrane from your eyeballs by hitting up Laurence Fishburne for some colorful pills. Your own personal matrix is coded into your memories and lived experience. It’s an inextricable part of reality and the harder you try to see through it the more you turn into a Conspiracy Keanu meme.
Take social media as an example: you’re sitting at home on a lonely Saturday night, tapping through Instagram stories of young people in clubs having the time of their lives. You choke with feelings of inadequacy. But are they really having fun, or are they actually desperately bored in a half-empty club that looks a lot more exciting in the narrow frame of a smartphone screen than IRL? You can’t be sure, but you feel miserable. This is your hyperreality viewed through the simulacrum of an Instagram story.
Have you ever felt deflated after purchasing something that you had lusted after particularly badly? A certain numbing anticlimax when the satisfaction of owning something doesn’t match up to the intensity of the desire that you felt for it before hand? This is because we buy the simulacrum rather than the product — the sportswear will turn us into athletes, the watch that will turn us into James Bond. Advertising peddles aspirational escapism, a product that doesn’t really exist. Had he lived to see the proliferation of unboxing videos, Baudrillard would probably diagnose them as a neurotic attempt to recreate the hyperreal illusion that we’re sold through advertising.
Rather than questioning the nature of consumption, unboxers create a new simulacrum of the product: the unboxing video. Observed through the lens of YouTube, the product becomes fantastically hyperreal just as it is in an advertisement, full of potential, a magical object that generates validating views, likes, and comments. There’s a clear process of identification at play here, as these vloggers try to force their reality to match up to the hyperreality of advertising.
The content of the box is secondary to the mania of buying and opening. As if to highlight this, one company, Zavvi, offers a monthly subscription service of mail order boxes filled with random junk that are popular with unboxing vloggers. The products never get used, the videos end with the climax of opening. The moment the product becomes real. The illusion shattered.
Filming the unboxing, however, keeps the product suspended in hyperreality because it's converted from one simulacrum (the marketing image) to another (the unboxing video). At no point does it become a mere inanimate object with a banal material purpose. This maintains the consumerist delusion and allows unboxers to keep dodging life’s big questions: namely, if spending can’t satisfy our need for meaning, then what can?