"Help! Please! Anyone! Hello?"
Poor Giovanna. The well-coifed blonde princess is trapped in a box (not surprising; she is a doll). Luckily, Sir Phillip and Sir Hector, two of Fischer Price’s Little People figurines, just happen to be walking by.
"Not to worry, m'lady," cries Sir Phillip. "We’ve got you!"
A rock is catapulted at the box, and Giovanna — a Journey Girl doll from Toys 'R' Us’ exclusive line — waddles out to talk with her rescuers.
"Oh, what beautiful gloves you come with," says Phillip.
"Here, take my shrug," says Giovanna.
"Would you like us to polish your bracelets and drop earrings, next?" asks Hector.
The conversation goes on like this for another minute or so. Tedious? To adult ears, maybe. But more than 1 million viewers — most of them children, presumably — have watched the YouTube video since it went live on Oct. 22.
Titled "Toys Unboxing Toys (Episode 1)," the 2-minute film is Toys 'R' Us’ first foray into the bizarre world of toddler unboxing videos. "This is the first time the company has created and launched our own version of unboxing videos," said Cheryl O'Brien, PR manager at Toys 'R' Us. "It’s about that moment on a child’s face when he or she experiences the magical power of play and imagination."
Unlike most of the thousands of unboxing videos found on YouTube, this one is scripted, animated and publicized with the resources of a Fortune 500 company. Part of a five-part series, the films are the centerpiece of Toys 'R' Us’ 2015 holiday "AWWWESOME" campaign, which also includes videos of toys coming alive after hours in the store, action figures talking to one another and story-driven spots that display the giving nature of the holiday season.
"Kids really watch these unboxing videos, and we’re bringing a whole new entertainment value with stop motion," said Wil Boudreau, CCO of BBDO Atlanta, which created the series of films for the retailer.
Content or commercials?
Entertainment is in the eye of the beholder, of course. But to millions of tiny viewers, toy unboxing videos now rival scripted TV as their preferred screen-time activity. YouTube clips of toys being removed from their boxes — either by fellow kids or a disembodied pair of hands — regularly rack up hundreds of millions of views, confounding parents ("Wouldn’t you rather watch an actual 'Paw Patrol,' honey?") and raising thorny questions about the intersection of content; commerce; and tiny, impressionable minds.
The Toys 'R’ Us films mark the first time a major brand has written and filmed its own unboxing videos. But make no mistake: Major brands have been actively supporting the creation of such videos for years. Toy manufacturers such as Disney’s Star Wars, Lego, Nintendo and Play-Doh have long provided popular unboxers with the latest and most coveted products to remove seductively from their packaging before a rapt audience of kids.
The brands themselves aren’t eager to talk about their involvement (Disney, Hasbro and Fisher-Price declined comment for this article.) But a visible ecosystem connects the companies to the unboxers themselves. Fullscreen, a global youth media company and multichannel network that connect brands such as Mattel with content creators on YouTube, has arranged many unboxing marriages over the years. One of their prime content creators is popular unboxer EvanTubeHD, whose videos feature toys from Warner Bros., DC, Nintendo, LEGO, Universal Pictures and Rovio Entertainment’s popular Angry Birds, among others.
"The brands tend to reach out to Fullscreen looking for content creators who will help them get their product to the target audience," said Khudor Annous, director of integrated marketing at Fullscreen.
Though the brands decide which products to provide, the creators determine the means of presentation. "It’s about trying to find the best format to introduce audiences to the product," said Annous. "Whether it’s unboxing directly on the nose, or a family blogger interacting in a specific product, we let the creators drive what the content is going to look like, with the brand signing off on approval."
Fullscreen, which launched in 2011 with headquarters in Los Angeles, generally works with YouTubers who are at least 14 years old, Annous said. It would be "challenging to work with kids" in YouTube video promotional environment, he added.
The relationships that do form between brands and unboxers are mutually beneficial. For almost negligible cost, advertisers get their products in front of a wiling and engaged young audience — an increasing challenge in the age of fractured media. And the YouTube stars stand to make a killing. FunToyzCollector (or DisneyCollectorBR) reportedly earned $4.9 million in 2014, making her the most profitable YouTube channel last year, with an average of 380 million views on her channel per month.
Products from Disney’s "Frozen" were most popular on FunToyzCollector’s channel, where the unboxing of the Play-Doh Sparkle Princess Anna and Elsa figures has received 380 million views so far since its release in July 2014. Surprise Eggs unboxing toys’ most popular video, Play-Doh ice cream cupcake unboxing, got over 650 million views from its initial upload in March 2014.
Not everyone watching is a fan.
Not playing fair
In April, a consortium of watchdog groups, including The Center for Digital Democracy (CDD), Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood (CCFC) and Public Citizen, filed a complaint to the FTC against the newly launched YouTube Kids app. The complaint claims that the unboxing videos violate the app’s advertising guidelines, which state that ads must "be distinctive to the user that this is an ad, and not general YouTube content."
"What we’ve asked the FTC to investigate is the intersection of the toy manufacturers: the toy programming community, the streaming services, the dominant video platforms like YouTube, the role of the advertisers and brands and their connections with influencer marketing and a host of new ways to stealthily promote branded content," said Jeffrey Chester, executive director for the Center for Digital Democracy.
Josh Golin, executive director of the CCFC, said his goal is to have YouTube’s guidelines changed so unboxing videos that are deliberately trying to sell products be removed from the app altogether.
The videos are "fundamentally unfair," said Golin, because children "are not developmentally ready to understand the basic concept of advertising and what’s being sold to them before the age of eight."
"The biggest problem is that children should be allowed to grow up before being manipulated by big companies that want to target them," he added.
Though 1 million views is hardly spectacular by unboxing video standards, the fact that kids are watching the Toys R’ Us version could suggest a more transparent path forward. Rather than quietly provide toys to amateur unboxers, brands could openly make their own videos and sidestep the regulatory risks. But first, says Golin, they have to clearly label the videos as advertising — something Toys 'R' Us does not appear to be doing.
"Companies shouldn’t disguise their ads for young kids as ‘content,’ and YouTube shouldn’t facilitate that deception," said Golin, referring to the fact that Toys Unboxing Toys is viewable as regular content on the YouTube Kids app. "There’s absolutely no way these videos should be on YouTube Kids. Given their target audience is clearly very young children, they shouldn’t be on YouTube, either."
Of course, there is no greater regulator of a child’s viewing habits then his or her own parents. But while mommy blogs are full of complaints about the hours that kids spend watching unboxing videos, it’s not hard to find parents who see no fundamental difference between them and more traditional kids’ content.
"I think they are great," said Katie Sexton, proprietor of MommyKatie. "I do allow my kids to watch them, and my daughter, who will be 12 in a few months, will be doing her own unboxing videos as part of my blog."
Playtime Toy Unboxing.
Sexton would not be alone in helping her daughter break into the unboxing game. Playtime Toy Unboxing, a modestly successful YouTube unboxing page that launched in February, stars a perky 5-year-old girl opening toys purchased by her parents. The girl’s father, who declined to give his name for privacy reasons, said in an interview that he was inspired to create his family’s own unboxing channel after seeing the success of DisneyCollectorBR, whom he claims to know before the Brazil native became Internet famous.
In his mind, the videos are a harmless pastime, a way for his daughter to have some after-school fun. He even says he has turned down offers from big brands that wanted to partner with his family. "It shouldn’t be like someone’s trying to sell you something," he said.
He did not, however, rule out the possibility of accepting a brand partnership in the future. That way, his daughter could earn money doing something she enjoys, and "she wouldn’t have to work at the mall or go to McDonald’s," he said.