Unboxing Videos Suck

You’ve finally gotten the thing on your hands. Oh, you’ve waited. You’ve waited long enough for it to arrive. You scramble around to find a penknife, or a paper cutter, or any knife at all. You locate it.

You get to surgery, making a few incisions here and there. Your first two attempts fail at finding a tearing point. Finally, on the third slash, the packaging gives way. You tear open the flimsy tape covering, which sticks to your hand, and reach the cardboard. The smell of printed ink greets your nostrils. You reach for the flaps and unfurl the opening.

Inside, the device is wrapped in a plastic cover. You take it out, and look inside for more goodies. The silica gel jangles and its smell hits you too. There are a few cables, a few pieces of paper, but no pot of gold. You are slightly let down. But hey, you’ve saved the best for the last.

You handle the device gingerly in your hands, breath catching in your throat. The latest, the greatest, the paramount. You take it out from its covering. You grab the thing and the whole of the thing, the metal and plastic device, a faint aroma of newness wafting from it. You turn it over, caress it from every side. You try out every button, slip your thumbs in every nook. You power the device on, or connect it to something, or set it down for operation. It works, of course.

But soon, you are disappointed. It works. Oh, the software and the other features are still left to explore. But the device merely functions. It does not lift you out of depravity, does not fill you life with endless wonder. It just operates. Soon, it becomes just another piece of furniture, or even an environmental burden in your mind. It just sits there, taunting you of your inability and failure, mocks you. You better hide it, or throw it away, or sell it. You need a replacement, an upgrade. Yeah, that word sounds nice and pleasant, right? An upgrade. Up your own grade.

You open your browser, searching for the next hit.

Recently, I got a new mechanical keyboard, because my laptop’s one was failing a few keystrokes. It was driving me mad. One pre-noon, the day of a solar eclipse nonetheless, I walked for twenty minutes to a ramshackle warehouse, which acted as a courier. The keyboard I had ordered from the capital had arrived, but it didn’t have my name on it. So I had to spent half an hour simultaneously trying to convince the people there that it was my courier, and trying to figure out the bill number from the seller. That was fun. I walked back in a light rain, finally reached home and proceeded to unravel the package.

Like most of humanity, I have enjoyed the ritual of unboxing through my life. This time too, the experience was pleasurable. But not for long.

Within minutes of getting the device to work, it seemed yet another aspect of my banal existence. Its RGB extravaganza did not excite me, because I had already seen every single mode of lighting. I did not go over the manual, because I already knew everything there was to know about the device, down to what switches it used (brown) and I had downloaded the software already. I even knew what sound it made!

I used to love not just unboxing, but getting a new tool, learning to use it, making it a part of my life. And I think it is not just rose-tinted nostalgia, but I genuinely was enthralled by the whole process. But no longer. This led to a period of reflection where I was searching for a culprit (cannot look in the mirror, for obvious reasons). And I landed on unboxing videos.

Why I Watch(ed) Them in the First Place

Reviews. They’re pretty great. Before YouTube and the internet, at best you had some expert word-of-mouth advice. More likely, you had the anecdotal evidence of someone who has only tested that single product, and did not find it entirely disagreeable. So, this new feature of consumerism, the ability to compare things without actually having to buy them is neat.

Wikipedia says unboxing videos started arriving in 2006, but I remember them being popular only since 2013 or so. A noticeable trend is the setup. Older videos will have a homemade quality and feel; you’ll get a first-person POV rummaging through the package, like some sort of shitty VR game (hey there’s an idea for you, marketers!). Nowadays, you are more likely to get a third person POV of a casually dressed YouTuber on a minimalist desk. And they get rid of the clutter quickly, too.

Another observation is that the unboxers are, in most cases, your average Jane/Joe. I’d personally rather take advice from an expert, but a larger audience seems more favored towards people they can relate to.

On the whole, unboxing is a thriving genre, here to stay. It is clearly quite addictive, especially to little children.

So What Seems to be the Problem, Sir?

Marketing. And consumer culture. These two are linked inextricably, but let’s try to address them linearly.

Marketing and Value Addition

Recently, I was reading about Kaizen in The Toyota Way. One thing that’s interesting in the Toyota Production System (TPS) - its affects prevalent throughout the business world, in terms such as lean and Minimum Viable Product - is its focus on value-added tasks. That is, do nothing that does not add value to the customer. Which begs the question, does packaging add value?

Up to a level, definitely. Reducing moisture, preserving contents, simplifying assembly are all vital. But the question I’m asking is more beyond that level. After the basic standards have been met, after a product is guaranteed safe delivery and the user is not harmfully confused, is there any value left to be added?

Many blogs seem to think so. A quick google search will give you dozens of guides that talk about unboxing, and why it is a crucial part of your marketing strategy. Like a lot of advertising, this smells of trying to manipulate the psyches of people to sell your product. And it is a tough choice for companies to make as well. Do you focus on your product and do the bare minimums for packaging? Or do you pour your money on marketing and the unboxing experience, spreading short-lived dopamine hits?

I don’t have the answers. Just a gut feeling that all marketers are shady people.

The Upgrade Culture

The next piece of the puzzle for me is the urge to upgrade. Everyday a new product launch, new reviews and unboxings in your newsfeed. New comparison videos and buyers’ guides. Fresh memes. Anyone quite happy with their existing tools get slowly and subtly led to think that new is always better. Instead of ‘why should I upgrade’, it now feels more like ‘why shouldn’t I upgrade’, which is a total shift in perspective.

Prime harder, faster, stronger … Prime Now!

I love this clip of Ronny Chieng, which although making fun of American consumerism, can stand in for general global consumerism as well. I had to wait two days for my keyboard to ship. I hated that.

Accessibility is great, surely. Getting a wider range of products, getting more alternatives, getting faster delivery is all well and good. But what about the usage of the tools themselves, how they fit in our lives? Every upgrade costs something. Yes, it costs money, but more than that, it costs your life. It demands a slice of your life to learn the ins-and-outs of the new thing, conform to its way of operation.

Another thing demands a hefty slice of your life: watching unboxing videos.

What Can Be Done

I’m not going to start a pitchfork assembly against creators and companies engrossed in unboxing (some even have unboxing in their channel names, as you know). But for myself, I have decided that unboxing is thing I can do without in my life.

I’ll still be watching review and rant videos of course, since they are informative while being entertaining. But the addictive unboxing clips have to go.

Maybe I’ll even revert back to enjoying unboxing things myself, who knows.

Written on 26 June 2020