For 21of21, GOOGLE SHOPPING and PAPER came together to break down some of the most memorable shopping moments of 2021 based on Google's trending search data. Over the past 12 months, YouTube videos with “unboxing” in the title were viewed over 20 billion times in the US.
When I was in preschool, there was a kid named Adam who brought in a shoebox for show and tell. The box used to contain his favorite sneakers with light-up soles that were the latest in ‘90s technology. The cardboard box was also, improbably, emitting a shrieking sound. As far as we knew though, the shoes didn’t make any sound when he stomped around the playground, which only added to the mystery of everything inside. Like a true showman, Adam did not disappoint; once it was his turn, he lifted the lid and out popped a little brown mouse he’d found in his kitchen that morning — much to our delight and the horror of our teacher.
Even now, I can remember the way my stomach knotted up in anticipation with every irate screech as we worked counterclockwise around the circle, so eager was I to find out the contents of that shoebox. And while nothing has ever quite topped Adam’s big reveal, I still feel an undeniable twinge of excitement whenever I hear the pop of a lid, which is probably why I — along with millions of viewers — am fascinated with unboxing videos.
For many, unboxing videos take a seemingly inane activity — opening something you’ve just purchased— and turn it into an oddly intriguing endeavor. Combining recaps of online shopping sprees and product reviews, mixed with the strangely soothing crinkle of tissue paper and the crunch of clamshell containers is strangely intoxicating. It activates the imagination, our interests piqued by an object we can project our expectations on, unsullied by glitches, return receipts or product flaws.
Sometimes, I get so excited by the promise and possibility of possessing something brand new that it almost feels like I’m possessed myself, close to foaming at the mouth and going full freakout. Thankfully, I know I’m not the only one eagerly awaiting presents, the pure delight elicited by the big reveal and the way we tear through the packaging in an almost animalistic fashion, just to see the product in its full factory-fresh glory.
Dr. Pamela Rutledge, a media psychologist, says humans aren’t good with uncertainties, which is why we all love figuring out what the surprise is. In fact, we’re “hardwired to be curious” and seek answers, something that originated in our big monkey brains as a survival mechanism to assess potential threats, control our environment and avoid danger. Unboxing videos somehow tap into this instinct, with the slight fear of receiving something shitty, the rush of dopamine that comes from the relief of seeing it for the first time and the smug satisfaction from finally solving the mystery. It’s like if Schrodinger's cat was wrapped in a shiny bow — you hope it’s alive, but it’s even more important to know the answer. Not knowing is always the worst.
“Our brains respond to anticipation of discovery,” Dr. Rutledge explains. “The reward neurotransmitters are triggered in the anticipation of finding the answer, not in finding the answer itself. This process keeps us engaged throughout the unveiling.”
She adds, “Unboxing is the same as opening a present. The content is less important than the ritual of opening and surprise.”
But that’s not the only thing that keeps us coming back to unboxing videos. In the internet age, when we all live vicariously through the lives of others, it makes sense that the next best thing to unboxing the product yourself is to watch someone else do it. In some ways, it’s almost nicer to watch a video rather than doing it myself, because I can project myself fully into it — without the buyer’s remorse or the guilt about actually spending the money. Instead, my lazy self can sit back, relax and watch perfectly edited clips of pertinent, need-to-know information about whatever product. But even if I never buy another clip-on ring light from my recommended videos, it’s hard to argue against no sweat, no hassle and no 8,000-page instruction manuals.
I find this especially true if I enjoy the creator’s analysis and feel like I can identify with their commentary. It’s almost like having a savvy friend whose opinions and recommendations I can trust. According to Dr. Rutledge, the more you watch a specific unboxer, the more you’re able to connect to their reaction when the big reveal happens which, all in all, increases the “persuasiveness of the experience.”
In essence, this innocent voyeurism tickles our imaginations, plays into our innate need for connection and, eventually, leaves us feeling satiated, like we’ve vicariously solved the mystery ourselves. Plus, the psychology behind why it's so gratifying to watch an unboxing video is almost equally as fascinating for me, probably for these exact same reasons.
I am incredibly lazy when it comes to doing anything myself, after all. But jokes aside, I think what’s undebatable is the gratification that comes with knowledge, because who doesn’t love the satisfaction of knowing what’s behind the curtain? Or, more appropriately, inside the box?