By 2014, I considered myself pretty much an expert in all things popular on YouTube, so imagine my surprise when I realised one day that suddenly the platform’s most-watched channel was one that I knew literally nothing about. An account by the name of DisneyCollectorBR seemed to defy the rules for popular channels. It did not contain music videos. There were no charismatic on-screen personalities. It had nothing to do with video games. DisneyCollectorBR (or as the channel has also been known, DC Toys Collector and Fun Toys Collector) featured a grown woman playing with children’s toys. The woman never appeared on camera, with the exception of her hands, which would pry open packaging, manipulate Play-Doh, or, quite commonly, pop open plastic eggs containing small toys or candy in little bags.
In a Latin American accent, she narrates the process. Her channel debuted in 2011 and within a few years became one of the top five most-watched channels on YouTube. By 2016, DisneyCollectorBR videos had been viewed over ten billion times, making the channel technically more popular than Justin Bieber’s(!). The videos have very long titles such as “Play Doh Sparkle Princess Ariel Elsa Anna Disney Frozen MagiClip Glitter Glider Magic Clip Dolls,” which is one of the channel’s most popular videos and has been watched in the neighbourhood of half a billion times.
DisneyCollectorBR is far from the only channel specialising in this type of fare. Channels called SurpriseToys and DCTC Toy Channel have each accrued a few billion views.
“I can think of few things more damaging to the self-esteem of the 40-something parent still trying to hang onto thin tendrils of cultural currency than to look at something your 2-year-old is watching and be utterly baffled,” writer Mireille Silcoff shared in a funny and bewildering 2014 essay after she, like so many others, came across these videos via her daughter. “Her obsession with these videos suggested to me some kind of deep neurological massaging, as if my child’s developing brain had a keyhole opening that lay in wait only for a faceless woman with a South American accent and brightly manicured nails removing letter-shaped Play-Doh moulds from their packaging.”
As this craze gathered steam, so did the number of panicky articles decrying its potential negative impact on young minds.
Are we indoctrinating a new generation of consumer sheep by feeding them a constant stream of cheap merchandising propaganda to obsess over? “They’re not a 30-second commercial that we might see on television that markets to children. These are 10minute-15-minute advertorials,” said a psychologist quoted in one such panicky news story. But then again, half of the TV shows I remember as a kid were actually based entirely on toys, and I can still recite the lyrics of the theme song to the Gummi Bears cartoon on command. Those seem pretty bad in retrospect, though at least they contained actual stories, often with some kind of positive message. Certainly videos of people opening and playing with toys just serve to get children more excited about buying and playing with toys of their own, right? But the more time I spent examining this, the more convinced I became that something more complicated drives the popularity of a ten-minute examination of a “Dora the Explorer Talking Backpack Surprise” toy. Mireille Silcoff came to a similar conclusion: “It occurred to me that perhaps the appeal...has no practical relationship to consumerism, that its satisfactions are more mysteriously folded into our emotional response system.”
Many people point to the familiar experience of children opening gifts on Christmas or their birthday. “The thrill of getting something new is so exciting, and anyone who has ever watched little children at a birthday party knows that it’s not all about receiving the toy themself – they really enjoy watching their friends opening their presents,” Scott Steinberg, author of the Modern Parent’s Guide series, told the Telegraph. “Children, as is the case with adults, enjoy mystery and suspense, especially when that is embedded in contexts which are likely to have safe, predictable outcomes,” wrote Jackie Marsh, an academic at the University of Sheffield, in a 2015 paper examining the toy video phenomenon. “This of course is the case with a surprise egg, which is always likely to contain a toy, in children’s experiences. These unboxing videos, therefore, contain structural elements common to popular media genres, such as mystery fiction.
This craze reminded me of one of my favorite TED Talks, a 2007 presentation by director JJ Abrams titled “The Mystery Box,” in which he used an unopened box of magician’s props he purchased many years ago as a metaphor for a storytelling device. To Abrams, the contents were not nearly as intriguing as the mystery and the enigma of the box that contained them. The talk was prior to his big-screen blockbuster forays, in the midst of the run of Lost, a popular television show he created that I had come to love and hate at the same time. Centring on a group of stranded plane crash victims on a mysterious island, Lost could be incredibly addicting (and infuriating) in its constant string of questions presented to the viewer. What is the island? What is the smoke monster? How is everyone so goddamn attractive all the time despite being in a sweaty showerless jungle? And as Lost answered various questions, it would present new ones. “I realised that mystery is the catalyst for imagination,” Abrams said in his talk, reflecting on the concept of the “mystery box” throughout his work. “I started to think that maybe there are times when mystery is more important than knowledge.”
Perhaps what a child experiences when he or she puts on an Angry Birds Play-Doh video is similar to how I felt when I put on a new episode of Lost. Perhaps each new Peppa Pig Kinder Surprise egg serves as a literal mystery box.
But maybe that’s just me trying to make sense of it through a media concept I understand. There’s some thought that the pleasure young viewers derive from these videos comes from a less straightforward place. “Many of these videos also offer close-ups of hands and fingers prising things open, and it may be the case that the activities of hands could be of particular interest to a young viewer,” Marsh wrote in her study. “In addition, the videos have accompanying sounds, which include the clicking open of the eggs and the crackle of plastic as the toy is unwrapped.” She suggested that the aesthetic experience and the comforting emotional response the videos trigger could be the source of appeal.
YouTube is home to a wide array of channels like these that draw significant viewership, but have a precise appeal we struggle to recognise and to which we cannot draw clear parallels within existing media. People of all ages seek out a wide variety of eyebrow-raising material that offers multisensory satisfaction.
Excerpted with permission from How YouTube Is Changing The World...With Double Rainbows, Singing Foxes, and Other Trends We Can’t Stop Watching, Kevin Allocca, Bloomsbury.