The camera holds on a single shot of a man’s hands. He strokes gently, and explains in a calm voice every sensation he’s feeling — weight, texture, size. Smooth jazz music plays in the background. There are no fancy graphics, no jokes and generally, not even a shot of his face. Finally, unable to wait any longer, he slips off that signature, tight-fitting Apple cellophane.
Did we make that video sound sexy? It’s actually super boring, but somehow it has hundreds of thousands of views. This is because “unboxing” videos — wherein a user simply opens a new product — have enjoyed a huge surge in popularity over the past several years.
According to Google, it would take seven years to watch all of the unboxing videos on YouTube. With the Apple Watch’s release on Friday (April 23), expect that duration to rise.
The videos, which started out as a phenomenon in the tech world, are enjoying a whopping viewership increase of 57% over the past year alone. Now there are unboxing videos for all kinds of products, from groceries to toys, though tech is still most common. But … how? Why?
We sat down with L.A.-based psychologist Dr. Judy White, a contributor to Psychology Today, for her thoughts on what unexpected factors may be behind this phenomena.
We are programmed to crave surprises, according to Dr. White.
Part of the allure of these videos may have to do with the fact that our ancestors faced death by vicious beast on a day-to-day basis, so we want to know what we can’t see. Fear of the unknown became a desire to be surprised; that’s why toddlers like to play peekaboo, and why all of us like to unwrap presents. Until we can buy our own gadget, an unboxing video is the easiest way to get a glimpse of what’s inside.
“It may have evolved … as a way of dealing with the uncertainty of life, and not knowing where a sabertooth cat was hiding,” White says. “This led to death for early man, but over time, that survival tactic may have found its way into our excitement over a ’whodunnit’ mystery novel [and] other ritualized forms of entertainment that play on that old fear.”
She speculates that unboxing is “a kind of a digital heir, which is now more of a fascination.”
We’re starting to get turned on by things that … um … turn on.
While unboxing videos are a relatively a new phenomenon, there is something vaguely familiar about them. That corny music, the amateur lighting and production values, the fetishization of how things look and feel … wait a minute, these things are shot exactly like porn!
They’re “really kind of seductive and funky,” White says. “It did seem like kind of the same soundtrack you would hear in a porno video, I have to say.”
The relationship between unboxing videos and porn is so close that even the people who make them seem to be aware of it. White mentions “there was one unboxing guru, a high-tech guy, who talked about it as ’geek porn.'”
OK, we all love our phones, but do we love love them? In a word, yes, and it’s been proven by neuroscience.
In 2013, researcher and “neuromarketing” expert Mark Lindstrom conducted a study in which he monitored the brain activity of subjects exposed to their smartphones, and made a pretty shocking discovery: When we see our smartphones, the same area of our brain activates as when we see our significant other.
According to White, this may be a clue as to why we’re hot for geek porn.
“If you think about unboxing … in terms of erotica, as a kind of courtship — where pornography is a kind of foreplay where the excitement slowly builds — the unboxer seems to be saying, ’You too can get to know this machine in the way that I have,'” White says.
There are certain steps that the unboxing commentators walk us through, time and time again, and the subtext may have fascinated Sigmund Freud.
“First is to admire the packaging, and to really get excited about the packaging and what’s underneath it,” White says. “And, of course, foreplay is psychological striptease where the product is uncloaked slowly, layer by layer, building anticipation until climax, when the naked product is completely revealed in its full glory.”
As viewers, we may be projecting ourselves vicariously — by imagining that we’re the man opening the box — to “satisfy” our desires.
Those of us who have limited access to the latest tech may be the most likely to seek out a connection by way of a video … and, just like in porn, the fact that we rarely see the unboxer’s face makes it easier for us to imagine ourselves as him. Why do we get such pleasure from watching someone else do something?
Again, our brains seem to be hardwired that way. We’re equipped with something called “mirror neurons,” which, explains White, “are the same neurons that fire when we watch an activity that are fired when we perform that same activity ourselves.”
In other words, if the person doing an activity is “enough like you that you can identify with him … and is experiencing this excitement of unwrapping this product,” then you’ll feel it “can happen to you too.” And, incredibly, “The same neurons would be firing if you were to unwrap it.”
Are unboxing videos a harbinger of where we’re going as a culture?
So, should we be freaked out that we’re subconsciously taking our love affair with machines to the next level? That depends on your perspective.
“I don’t want to … say it’s a bad thing,” White cautions. “I think it’s just evolving as we enter cyborg country. We’re kind of [becoming] part-human and part-machine. There’s much more of an intimate relationship between human beings and machines than ever before. We’re wearing them. We’re getting implanted with them. It’s harder to know when someone’s human being-ness ends, and when a machine’s boundaries begin. … It’s how people respond to that inevitable shift that will [determine] what direction we go in as a species and as a planet.”
Ironically, part of the reason why unboxing videos might appeal to us is that — in an age when we’re surrounded by technology everywhere we look — they make it feel unfamiliar again.
“[U]nboxing videos put the mystery back in the relationship,” says White. “They emphasize the importance of the ’getting to know you’ phase.”