"I gotta tell you. I like this matte black. I don't want to put this in the case."
He didn't use the phone, just gave a running narration of the initial reveal. People watched the six-minute YouTube video over 200,000 times.
Wilson is a professional at the emergent craft of unboxing videos, self-made documentaries of that enthusiastic moment a gadget or geegaw is liberated from its packaging. As of November 16, 2014, there were more than 20 million search results for "unboxing." Today, there are over 60 million, and we are about to enter the season when these micro-documentaries proliferate on YouTube like barnacles on the bottom of a floating department store. Thirty-four percent of the views for unboxing videos related to food, electronics, toys, beauty, and fashion happen in October through December, according to YouTube Insights.
From the Archives
Descended from "haul" videos--which capture people cataloging the contents of their shopping bags--unboxing videos go one step further in their dissection, opening the packaging and paying relentless attention to design, instructions, and any iteration of fine print. They are the vanguard of consumer voyeurism, allowing the watcher to experience vicariously the Christmas-morning-like thrill of consumption, or maybe just learn about a new product. Wilson makes about five of these videos per week, at roughly 100,000 views a piece, for his nearly a million subscribers. His most popular unboxing video, "Fat Guy Falls Off Hoverboard!" has 2.5 million views.
Unboxing videos got their sea legs in the mid-aughts highlighting Apple's famously elegant packaging, and soon propagated for gaming consoles, video games, electronics, subscription boxes, and anything with an anticipated launch date. They hit their stride in 2014, when views and uploads jumped 50 percent and 57 percent year-over-year respectively.
With enough views, a seasoned unboxer can make a living as a YouTube sensation via the Google AdSense program. This is what Wilson does. Once a tech advisor for Chicago public schools, he made his first video eight years ago as an antidote to summer boredom and a tutorial on video editing. For the first couple of years, he developed a modest following making videos about school and technology. Then, like many other striving YouTubers, Wilson had his a-ha moment in 2014. He got early access to the release of Nintendo "toys-to-life" Amiibo characters, and went at them with unselfconscious enthusiasm.
"I was ripping them out like a 6-year-old kid," Wilson remembers, and that organic excitement resonated with viewers. These videos were his first to reliably cross the 100,000-view threshold and generate a lot of engagement in the comments.
That success comes at a cost, however. For better or for worse, kids all over the world tend to be compulsive watchers of unboxing videos. Unable to purchase desirable products, they can--in some small way, through the unboxing videos--indulge in the repetitive viewing of someone else in a state of euphoric consumption. This leads to numbers like the 130 million-plus views a video of a 4-year-old unboxing a battery-operated Spiderman car received in 10 months, from March to November of this year.
Kids tend to favor videos with bright colors, kind and pleasant voices, and of course, other children. But childlike excitement from an adult will do in a pinch. In 2014, the highest paid YouTuber (just above Taylor Swift) was an anonymous woman with an almost cartoon-like voice who makes videos of her hands opening colorful Disney Toys. She took in nearly $5 million on YouTube--about $750,000 more than Taylor Swift for the year--through Google AdSense, the partner program that splits ad revenue generated on a YouTube channel. Wilson estimates that full-time professional unboxers monthly take is anywhere from $2,000 to up to $50,000 for the few superlative market leaders.
To be sure, Wilson targets the adults. Most of his users are young men aged 25 to 34. But he knows the kids are there; underage viewers will often lie about their ages on their accounts.
Child psychologists and researchers have begun looking into the effect these videos have on young viewers, and consumer and child advocacy groups have encouraged the Federal Trade Commission to investigate whether this kind of content aimed at children qualifies as unfair and deceptive marketing.
Even so, the strategy for videos aimed at grownups is not entirely different, at least not for big personality unboxers. Be relatable, be likable, and show people how the product could exist in their homes or hands. (Bright colors and high energy seem to work with grown viewers, too.)
For his part, Wilson attributes his success to being genuinely enthusiastic about the products in front of him. Some unboxers, like Marques Brownlee, favor more detailed technical observations in their unboxing videos.
Still, what both Wilson and Brownlee understand is that tech-themed unboxing videos are a regular person's game--videos made by "everyday"-looking people in unfussy settings outperform glossier unboxing videos with higher production values or videos starring celebrities paid to open a new product. (Alternately, the most popular beauty unboxings tend to be made by young people who are, conventionally speaking, beautiful.)
Watching Joe America open one subscription box at a desk in his living room is a lot more relatable than watching a supermodel open a fleet of eBay boxes in a big-city loft (per one recent unboxing video with Karlie Kloss, which has earned only about 26,700 views). For a while, Wilson had a studio set up in his house; he moved his videos back into the living room and kitchen, so people could feel more like they were hanging out with him after a trip to the store.
This accessibility appeals to unboxing viewers, who often need to save up to buy the featured cell phones, tablets, gaming consoles, and other more expensive, constantly evolving tech, says Wilson. Nintendo, Apple, and X-Box products have typically been his most popular.
"They'll often say in the comments that they don't have a lot of money, or they don't have things. They like to live vicariously through the video." Wilson says. "They love seeing me unbox, because they don't see it as bragging."
Wilson adds that transparency is vital: his audience knows he keeps the swag coming--not through a "Rich Kids of Instagram" style trust fund but through company-sponsored influencer programs. These are formal partnerships through which popular internet personalities receive free product for coverage on their social media channels. Wilson was able to participate in Nintendo's program when he moved to L.A. Microsoft and Xbox found him last year, when his subscriber base jumped from 200,000 to 700,000.
Wilson also emphasizes authenticity. "If I don't like something, I will say it," he says. "I think that helps as well." He adds that you have to be willing to try new things--alluding to the success he's had with non-unboxing videos, too.
Lately, Wilson has been shifting into more casual vlogging videos, which follow him in real-life interactions--say, talking about a router he's returning during a drive to the post office. It's fun for viewers who've gotten to know him over the years, he says. That video wouldn't just detail the router's specs; viewers could also get commentary on the Shake Shack burger he grabs on the way home, or the show he watched on his iPhone 7 while waiting on line at the post office.
"People are really into the reality format on YouTube. They like stories. They just want to know what you're doing with your life," Wilson says. "Vloggers are killing it right now."
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