The ‘unboxing’ genre of videos is a way to go shopping with people you’ve never met. It reveals how much the packaging of products has always been part of how and why we buy.
Some weeks, the courier van pulls up to Emma Roma Jayne’s house three or four times, unloading packages of different shapes and sizes: protein powder, cowboy boots, an outfit she wants to wear at Rhythm and Vines. She is alone in her house, but she has company as she opens the packages: her 37,000 TikTok followers. The background is greige but the packages are colourful: a pastel blue box, a vibrant purple skirt.
Jayne exclaims, beams, holds her new things up to the camera. “My heart is racing,” she says, as she unfolds a pair of embossed cowboy boots from a plastic packet. In perfect time, text appears over her head: a discount code for the shop where the boots came from. In the comments, the tell-tale #gifted tag.
A Taranaki-based creator who initially joined TikTok to post about weight loss and fitness, Jayne’s turn to unboxing is hardly unique. Unboxing has become a staple on YouTube, with children able to earn millions of dollars by unboxing toys; there have been more than 25 billion views of YouTube videos with unboxing in the title this year alone. “Haul” photos are hallmarks of Instagram carousels, and TikTok has become home to a similar style of content – just with shorter videos.
Of course, people liked looking at other people’s stuff before the internet. Gathering around to watch someone else open Christmas or birthday presents is a longstanding hallmark of celebrations. Like unboxing videos, part of the enjoyment is watching the emotion of surprise, gratitude or concealed disappointment. The mystery is part of the enjoyment: a concealed object is revealed, and the response to the object is a way to understand a person you know more (even if it’s just a certainty that you won’t be buying them socks in the future). The difference is that online, the social ritual of unboxing becomes one that is shared with potentially thousands of strangers rather than your direct social circle.
Whatever the platform, unboxing is a simple format. The creator opens packages on camera and shows off the items inside, describing how they feel or look. Perhaps they express enthusiasm or scepticism about the new thing, or test it out. The video ends before we get to see how well it lasts, or what happened to all the packaging.
“I watch a lot of lifestyle content – unboxing, day in the life, what [people] have been buying – because that entertains me,” Jayne says. “Then I put that in my own content as well.”
She thinks that unboxing videos are popular because it’s a way to share the sense of anticipation that is key to online shopping. “It’s not like buying things from a store five minutes away – the effect of waiting for it to come in that mail, unboxing, seeing the packaging, that’s what makes it entertaining to open.”
But the idea of packaging being entertaining is relatively novel, and created by the reality of shopping online meaning you don’t see what you’re getting first. When you buy something in-person, you have the chance to hold the item and see what it looks like, or to try it on if it’s clothing or shoes. Packaging is designed to display the object and make it look attractive. But if the item has already been exhibited at its best possible angle in the window of the internet, then the packaging is firstly a practical consideration to make sure it isn’t damaged in transit, and secondly a signal about what kind of item might be inside.
“Oh, the packaging is so cute,” Emily Barr says, over rustles, as she unpacks a purchase in a recent TikTok. Several “cute” additions – a badge, a sticker – tumble out of the plastic, revealing a custom-stamped tissue paper. Barr is almost embarrassed to admit why she first started posting on TikTok. “It sounds stupid, but I saw all these people getting free stuff, and I thought ‘I want to get free stuff’,” the Otago University student says. “Around last year I started realising it was something I could be part of.”
It’s worked – kind of. She now has nearly 3,000 followers, and regularly gets thousands of views on her videos, with the occasional viral hit. That’s enough eyeballs that influencer-first brands have come offering free stuff, although the approaches are infrequent – she might have two or three brands reach out one month, then nothing for weeks and weeks. But there’s a difference between free and wanted things: Barr has found that the selection of items that influencers can choose from are often more limited than a brand’s mainstream products, which means she has received and made videos about items that she knows she’ll never use.
In between studying for her commerce degree and working part-time, Barr watches TikTok. As we talk, she finds her Screen Time from the previous week and discovers that she spent nearly 13 hours on TikTok over the last week. Those videos have given her time to contemplate packaging. “You don’t see the packaging in store as much, obviously,” she says. “Like when they wrap it in tissue paper, you think ‘that’s a bit bougie’. Online, you see people unboxing things and there are boxes within boxes, which has this luxury feel.”
The packaging, in other words, is integral to the anticipation bound up in a new item. “You watch other people unbox things and you buy into it,” Jayne says. “But it can be a bit misleading – I’ve had some packages arrive with fun things and little bits and pieces but I didn’t like the actual product at all.”
Good-quality packaging often ends up sticking around. Brands realise this isn’t new, either; there’s a reason those sturdy biscuit tins and chocolate boxes get used for decades, providing free advertising on the way. During the Great Depression, flour mills in the US realised that with fabric in short supply, people were using flour sacks to make clothing, and they started printing them to make them nicer to wear.
Barr reckons that most people have had the experience of receiving something expensive in a particularly nice box – luxury skincare, a phone – and keeping the packaging, just because it feels weird to throw away an object associated with something so expensive. Branding can make even an empty box an object of desire. “I keep the better boxes, when they’re made of that hard cardboard,” she says. If she is ever able to afford designer clothing, she knows she’ll be keeping the packaging – a mentality clearly shared by Trade Me sellers who shill Chanel paper bags and Prada cloth cases, the designer object proxy in its packaging.
The imagination of wealth embedded in unboxing videos hasn’t escaped Jayne, either. “When people unbox expensive things, like Gucci, I’m in awe,” she says. “I haven’t experienced that myself, but it’s a way of knowing what that’s like.”
Because so much shopping now takes place in private, packaging is a way that brands can get attention in public-by-proxy, by being eye-catching online. “We aim to make a box itself part of the brand experience,” says Kim Worthy, the design lead at a company called Baseline, which makes custom boxes for businesses among other design services. “We make the unboxing special for our customers; each order is uniquely packaged with cardboard, paper tape and a little note.”
The hope is that beautiful boxes will be kept or regifted, reducing waste. Baseline has custom order sizes and sustainably sourced cardboard – but the fact remains that packaging is often more decorative than functional, about as useful as wrapping paper. That’s no doubt a noble intention, and many people do keep boxes – not least because the original packaging can be an excellent way to increase the value of an item you’re reselling. Still: so much of the cardboard and plastic in which things arrive at our houses encased end up in the bin, sooner or later. You only need so many boxes, and they’re cheap enough to produce that no one is worrying too much about returning them.
Most people know this, at some abstract level, but the recycling truck comes and whisks away the evidence before they need to think too hard about accumulating stuff. The enjoyment of receiving packages is such that multiple brands now offer “cases of crap”, with random assortments of unsold items bundled in a box, advertised explicitly as being cheap, and maybe not something you even want. Mystery boxes, now offered by hundreds of companies, also extend the concept: the point is that you don’t know what is inside, and the enigma only makes these items more entertaining to unbox.
“[Waste] is the real downside of social media marketing,” Barr says. “You see big influencers with 20 packages of PR stuff for the week, they’re not going to use any of that, and you can only give away so much to friends and family.” She’s still a small fish in the big sea of digital influencing. “The market is saturated with small influencers,” she says. She’s not worried by the waste she herself produces, but the thoughts of piles of unused objects and their coverings still makes her uneasy.
“People look to influencers because they live a lifestyle that looks desirable,” Jayne says. The process of unboxing, accumulating items in pretty packaging, is part of that desire. She likes enthusing about her latest items, and her audience does too. “I just want to create videos about products I’m authentically excited for.”