Would you watch a stranger open PR packages in a YouTube video longer than the average sitcom episode? Millions of people do. Morgan Ashworth explains why.
Shannon Harris is sitting on the floor in her filming room, wearing a Gucci-esque t-shirt and Homer Simpson pyjama bottoms. She’s surrounded by packages. It’s like 15 Christmases at once, a haul even Dudley Dursley would be proud of. They’ve been sent to her by PR companies and the brands they represent, all hoping their products will earn precious airtime in front of her YouTube audience of three million. The total value of the items stacked around her exceeds $7000.
“Hello everyone, so today I’m doing a huge unboxing. This might be one of my biggest unboxings yet. You can’t even see all the mail behind me – there is stacks and stacks. I reckon there’s at least, like, 40 packages right here,” Shannon begins. “So… this video’s going to be A, very long, and probably not too in-depth. I think I need to get through it as quick as possible.”
Shaaanxo’s PR ‘unboxing’ videos are some of her most viewed, averaging over 400,000 views. Tati Westbrook, another big beauty YouTuber better known as GlamLifeGuru, uploads similar videos. ‘MY BIGGEST UNBOXING FREE SH*T HAUL YET ????’ ends up being a whopping 28 minutes long. Twenty minutes in, Shannon’s cheery voice declares the video will be part one of two. She’s less than halfway through opening the bags and boxes piled up around her. She’s already shown 95 products, worth over $4000.
It’s an interesting turn for beauty content creators to take: even two years ago, any beauty video that openly acknowledged and displayed the extent of the creator’s makeup collection came couched with a thousand disclaimers. “I’m not trying to brag in any way, shape or form. I just love collecting makeup and YouTube is my job.” Girls (they’re mostly girls) would explain at length how they actually bought a lot of this makeup with their own money, desperately promising their viewers they weren’t paid to show off certain product in the video.
I know this because I watch a lot of makeup videos, and a lot of Shannon’s videos. She has 1168 videos on her channel and I’ve probably watched 900 of them. I feel like I’ve been through a lot with her. I was watching when she went to Thailand for her boob job, when every video had a Landon Austin song in the background, when her favourite lipstick was MAC Saint Germain. My boyfriend knows the sound of her voice and sometimes I have dreams where Shannon and I are bffs.
With over three million YouTube subscribers, Shannon’s just been named in Forbes’ top five most influential figures in the beauty world, so people are listening to what she has to say. It’s an influence that every beauty brand is desperate to get a chunk of, and unless they’re willing to drop upwards of $10,000 on a single sponsored video, showering her in PR gifts is their only hope.
That being said, a recent study in influencer marketing, done by YouTube, Nielsen and media agency Carat points to how content creators like Shaaanxo have changed the marketing rule book. Simple product placement doesn’t work anymore. “Deep thematic integrations” are more effective. Shannon’s viewers and YouTube users in general are too switched on to allow straight-up advertising. If she starts sounding like a shill, they’ll start smashing that thumbs-down button.
On Shannon’s channel, deep thematic integration is when, say, she films a ‘first impressions’ video trialling a foundation she’s been sent. She talks through applying it, with and without primer, tests it under flash photography, and sees how it wears over 12 or more hours.
So why are we transfixed by her PR hauls? They’re the opposite of deep thematic integration – just a long, moving product catalogue, really. And remember, Shannon’s learning about those products at the same time as we are. She can’t tell us the USP or give us the full product demonstration.
Chances are, these products will never even make it out of their packaging and onto her face. As big as her makeup collection is (housed in a custom-built corner unit with individual slots for hundreds of lipsticks), she doesn’t use everything she’s sent. A lot gets put aside (or dumped on the floor) to be sorted through in another video, and then donated to charities like Look Good, Feel Better.
For a PR staffer, getting your product good airtime in one of Shannon’s videos is a gold medal. Getting it the sole focus of a ‘first impressions’ video, broadcast to three million subscribers, without sponsorship, is like winning the PR World Cup and the Olympics, too. That’s champagne in the office, A+ on your performance review, no more work for the rest of the year material.
But even if the carefully tissue-wrapped, lolly-stuffed package some PR intern sends out to a beauty guru doesn’t make it into its own video, the agency is probably hoping for more than a four second flash in front of the camera deep into a half-hour long unboxing video. With that, they’ll get Shannon reading the product’s name aloud – correctly, if they’re really lucky – and maybe an “oh that’s so cute” or “omg I love it”, or, if the ghost of Estée Lauder herself is smiling down at them, “I’m obsessed”.
A commenter says “idk how she’s not overwhelmed with all the boxes!!! This video gave me so much anxiety! Haha”. I kinda feel the same way. There are so many parcels that they take up almost the entire room, and they’ve only arrived over the past month – Shannon’s previous PR unboxing video was uploaded on September 5.
These kinds of videos feel like a way for gurus to deal with that overwhelming volume of product, fulfilling pressure from brands to give them some sort of coverage. Of course, everyone watching is just plain curious, too. We love makeup, we want to see what’s new. And we’re rubbernecking, eager to see what life is like for the regular ol’ Kiwi girl from Palmerston North who’s also a social media celebrity and drives a Porsche. $7500 is more money than most of us would spend on makeup in years.
And, despite the sports car, Shannon has remained a real person. She’s managed to maintain the delicate balance between excitement over each beige liquid lipstick or squishy powder compact she lifts from the wrapping (real or feigned, it doesn’t really matter) and her goofy and relatable self. She gets distracted while fawning over a new NARS lipstick: “did I forget to fake tan my elbow?” She doesn’t edit out the part where she reads aloud Lululemon’s return policy before realising it’s not advertising copy for a new product.
It’s this relatability that sets the new generation of influencers apart from traditional celebrities. The YouTube/Nielsen/Carat study cites irreverence as driving the credibility and trust of beauty gurus like Shannon. She taught herself her makeup skills, she can’t pronounce French brands properly, she got bullied in high school; she’s just like you and me. Just way, way richer.
Shannon’s got a captive audience of three million, who have all chosen to get notified when she uploads a new video, on a subject they love. Even if ten percent of those subscribers watch any one of her videos, that’s a viewership larger than the population of Wellington.
And those viewers – we viewers – will sit through 30, even 40 minutes of beauty content, content that’s dependent on makeup products and almost impossible to create without mentioning brand names. No wonder PR companies are showering her with full product lines, tiny screens that autoplay video when she opens the box, piñatas, Pizza Hut vouchers and tubes of bubbles.
Uploading videos like this is a pretty savvy way of acknowledging all this. It’s too late to pretend that Shaaanxo is just a passion project, that brands sending her mountains of product is just a happy coincidence that supplements a girl’s love of makeup. Why not call it what it is: free shit from PR companies?
But $7500 of free lipstick won’t pay Shannon’s bills, either. To make money, she needs people to watch her videos – well, more specifically, to watch the ads on her videos. The longer the video, the more ads, the more ad revenue for her. So if she can make one month’s worth of PR deliveries into two 30-minute videos, each hitting YouTube’s trending list and gathering 400+ thousand views, without even having to put on a scrap of makeup on camera?
Sounds like a genius formula to me.