Despite my inordinate concern with various esoteric phenomena thereof, I am totally disconnected from American culture. Like your grandpa accidentally watching I Heart Huckabees, I occasionally run across some expression of the national zeitgeist that seems all the more disturbing for having been going on this whole time without me. Such was my reaction to the existence of unboxing videos. They seem disgustingly alien yet also inevitable in retrospect, like when the dog gets a boner. I became familiar with the form through this video calling for its end, which does a nice job identifying the hallmarks of the genre.* A reviewer or civilian has just purchased an item of consumer electronics. He narrates the experience of opening the box, describing the packaging in minute detail. Then he observes the physical form of the product itself, suggesting the connection between that form and its socio-semiological significance—also known as its function. Then everyone lapses into the silence of despair. That last part is implied, but it’s the ultimate destination of pretty much every variation on the form.
Here is what I consider a pretty straight exemplar of the genre: an unboxing video for the HTC Incredible cell phone, a product which I personally own. Don’t buy it; the spellchecker is terrible, and will A) add any typo that you accidentally put a period after to the custom dictionary and B) automatically correct “grocery stor” to “grocery dyke.” It’s possible that the second problem is a manifestation of my habits with the first, but the point is that this is what unboxing videos are like. Note the fairly restrained but still palpable attention to packing materials, as well as the clearly unscripted commentary. Also, it is thirteen minutes long.
“Pretty sweet undercover, here,” our host notes, describing the phone’s battery housing. “It’s all red—kind of like Ferrari-colored.” When we finally bury the human spirit, that is what we should write on the tombstone. For host and viewer, red is the color of Ferraris—a poetic comparison that tells us something about the aesthetic of the form. The most striking feature of the unboxing video is the way that it presents products as emotional experiences— almost visceral ones. Unboxing stories are consciousness stories. They invite the viewer to observe the act of unboxing as if he were participating in the act of unboxing, as cathartic drama. In this way, they resemble their cousin in the internet age, pornography.
I bet you can think of some ways that the man in this video does not resemble the people in pornography. It is quite possible that this shirtless endomorph has produced his unboxing video as a hoax, although my personal assessment of his speech and breathing patterns is that he is real. You know this man is actually this character, because his XBox is not in a living room but in his bedroom. Also, he is fascinated by the “collector’s edition” status of his product, going so far as to observe that the shrink wrap is hardly collector’s edition plastic. Of particular interest is the promotional book that comes with the game, printed as if it were a tome from a forgotten civilization: “It looks kind of worn out, but it’s actually just the paint job.”
That sense of the historical value of consumer products seems to be a universal subtext in unboxing videos. Paradoxically, it is both reinforced and undercut by a reverent appreciation for care, as captured in this 24-minute epic. Seriously, this video of a man opening a decade-old computer he bought on eBay is longer than the Mr. Plow episode of The Simpsons. Our likable narrator seems genuinely touched by the effort that “Derek” invested in packaging his purchase, and his satisfaction—like his borderline-unhealthy love of Apple products—suggests something poignant about the unboxing phenomenon.
Clearly, unboxing videos are gross because they offer too much reverence to consumer products. You shouldn’t make a narrated video of you opening your cell phone because your cell phone is spiritually and emotionally inert. The box is empty, so to speak. Yet the comical respect that characterizes such videos suggests a fundamental longing. We have applied our home cameras to videos of ourselves opening home cameras because we want this consumer culture to be meaningful. Like the probably unhappy owner of collector’s edition Fallout: New Vegas, we want our pursuit of tacos and Best Buy to be a spiritual experience. We want it to be a life, even as a series of disposable plastic envelopes reminds us that it’s not. That’s a sad state of affairs, but it’s good people in it. The unboxing video is a document of a culture excitedly opening up and wishing it found something better.