Why Are We Obsessed With 'Unboxing' Videos?

Of the many videos recently uploaded to YouTube, the one above caught our eye. Titled "Num Noms Ice Cream Sundae Sampler Surprise Set with Disney Frozen Fever Birthday Anna Elsa NumNoms," the video features a woman's hands, their elaborately lacquered nails featuring Minnie Mouse, opening a box of toys as her high-pitched voice lyrically guides her viewers—most of whom can barely speak themselves—through the components of the set.

"Time to make an awesome ice cream," she coos, as she piles the plastic bits, called NumNoms, into a plastic cone, waving each piece into a totem pole of sorts. "How tall can we go?" 

Welcome to the world of "unboxing," where products get unwrapped and torn from their packages and shown to an online audience. These videos take after the "haul videos" from earlier this decade, in which adults showcase the stuff they buy during a shopping spree, and the “geekporn” videos that cram the Internet immediately after a new version of a phone or other coveted personal tech comes out.

But unboxing videos are a little different: They portray adults unwrapping children's toys, often with a disembodied voice that sounds as if the narrator is playing with the child. Others choose music instead of voice overs. All focus on the big reveal, which can come many times in a single video, especially when it comes to objects like Kinder Eggs.

And before you dismiss this phenomenon as just another weird trend indicative of our digital obsessions, consider this: unboxing videos routinely take a few of the top 10 spots on most-viewed YouTube watchlists, among the music videos from international superstars and the latest viral prank. There’s clearly something alluring about this unwrapping-by-proxy for millions of people. What is it?

Unboxing video stars are notoriously difficult to reach and private. As the New York Times reported, the star of the above-cited video is Melissa Lima, a.k.a. DisneyCollector or FunToyzCollector, an allegedly 20-something Brazilian native who now lives in Westchester, New York, and may be worth millions thanks to ad revenue and endorsement deals from her videos. One of her most popular videos, “Angry Birds Toy Surprise Jake and the Never Land Pirates Disney Pixar Cars 2 Easter Egg SpongeBob” (unboxing videos rely on keyword searches and often feature dense titles that may not be poetic but are efficient in driving traffic), has garnered more than 106 million views.

But mental_floss spoke to unboxing star Melissa Hunter, a 48-year-old mother who, with her now 12-year-old daughter Gracie, launched the YouTube channel Mommy and Gracie in June 2012. The series features the slapstick, often klutzy duo unboxing toys—predominantly dolls—and reviewing them. The Hunters started the series on a whim and have become quite successful, garnering 587,000 subscribers and 295 millions views (and about 17 million per month). They’ve become a household name, particularly among moms and kids, who range in age from toddlers to tweens.

In November, the Hunters attended the Chicago Toy and Game Fair as special guests and unboxed toys for an hour during an event billed as the world's largest and possibly first livestreaming of unboxing.

Hunter suspects the reason why her unboxing videos are so popular is that they feature both her and her daughter sharing a spirit of curiosity and play. When she was a child, her father spent hours playing with her—a luxury of time many parents can't afford today.

But while Hunter understands how her videos may fill a gap, she’s not necessarily entirely comfortable with it. Her most ardent fans are toddlers who can barely speak. Hunter cites numerous children who’ve come up to her and called her “Mommy” while their parents look on quizzically. “It’s concerning to know that these kids are watching me and my daughter and their parents have no idea what they’re watching,” she tells mental_floss. She’s not alone in her concern; many parents say they are mystified by how bedazzled their children are by unboxing videos.

Perhaps they shouldn’t be so surprised. Hunter gave a talk in New York City in November at StreamCon, a new conference for digital content producers, about why toddler-aimed unboxing videos are solid business. She cited some astonishing statistics: 25 percent of children under the age of 2 in the U.S. have their own tablet, and 80 percent of parents give their device to their child aged 0–2. A look at Google Trends shows that unboxing as a search term has spiked, and not just in America: Countries in South Asia are leading the pack in terms of interest, with tech unboxings aimed at adults being the most popular. 

Psychologists don't think unboxing necessarily has a bad impact on kids—or adults. Pamela Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Center, which studies how people interact with media across platforms, thinks unboxing videos feed into a primal curiosity and desire to know what's hidden inside something. The desire to be surprised might be part of our essential makeup.

"The human brain is wired to be curious," she says. "What's in stuff? What's behind stuff? We have a natural proclivity to know."

Rutledge says the unboxing phenomenon isn't new: she points to gumball machines spitting out toys, cereal boxes with surprise gadgets, and popsicles that reveal a joke or quote on the stick only once they’re eaten up. 

This element of surprise has a couple of uses for us, and it varies by age. Consider a toddler watching an unboxing video. They watch a box being taken apart or a plastic egg being opened. Fingers grab the product inside, toy with it, fit it in shapes or assemble parts together. Rutledge says that for the very youngest viewers, unboxing videos can act as both a cognitive experience and a reassurance mechanism.

"For younger kids, they'll watch unboxing videos repeatedly, the way they like to have stories told to them repeatedly," explains Rutledge, herself a mother of six. It's comforting for kids to see the same “surprise” come out from packaging, even though they know what’s inside.

As kids grow older, the element of surprise becomes more of an exploratory event, Rutledge says. Tween, teen, and adult tech geeks who are transfixed by unboxing videos are often looking to buy the product themselves.

"They're sort of how-to videos,” Rutledge says. “You're imagining yourself go through the process [of opening the box]. In contrast to advertisements, these are real."

It's easy to dismiss unboxing videos as more proof of our digital lives being dictated by the Internet, but Rutledge argues that these videos—as well as other online games that have risen in popularity among children—shouldn't be cast aside as silly or brain numbing.

"We have a negative understanding of vicarious in our society—that you're not doing your own living,” she says. Unboxing, she says, “is a different thing. It's more of an exploratory learning process."

“For kids, handing them a toy ice cream parlor [for example]—it's already done the work for you. There's no imagination, no building, thinking, creativity, or problem solving,” she continues. “With these videos and other games, there's learning: How are they putting it together? How are they using the Play-Doh? How are they making different creations?"

Screenshots from FunToyzCollector, YouTube

Celebrate the Holidays With the 2020 Harry Potter Funko Pop Advent Calendar

Funko
Funko

Though the main book series and movie franchise are long over, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter remains in the spotlight as one of the most popular properties in pop-culture. The folks at Funko definitely know this, and every year the company releases a new Advent calendar based on the popular series so fans can count down to the holidays with their favorite characters.

SIGN UP TODAY: Get exclusive deals, product news, reviews and more with the Mental Floss Smart Shopping Newsletter!

Right now, you can pre-order the 2020 edition of Funko's popular Harry Potter Advent calendar, and if you do it through Amazon, you'll even get it on sale for 33 percent off, bringing the price down from $60 to just $40.

Funko Pop!/Amazon

Over the course of the holiday season, the Advent calendar allows you to count down the days until Christmas, starting on December 1, by opening one of the tiny, numbered doors on the appropriate day. Each door is filled with a surprise Pocket Pop! figurine—but outside of the trio of Harry, Hermione, and Ron, the company isn't revealing who you'll be getting just yet.

Calendars will start shipping on October 15, but if you want a head start, go to Amazon to pre-order yours at a discount.

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

12 Fascinating Facts About Crows

Mick Thompson, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0
Mick Thompson, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

Crows often get a bad rap. In many Western cultures, they've historically been associated with death, disease, and bad omens; reviled as crop-stealers by farmers, and condemned as nuisances by city dwellers. But the birds are fascinating creatures, adaptable and brainy to an extent that's almost scary. Here are a few facts about these crafty corvids that might surprise you.

1. All crows and ravens belong to the same genus.

Members of the genus Corvus can be found on every continent except Antarctica and South America (although other close relatives live there). To date, scientists have named 40 species. Colloquially, some of them are referred to as ravens while others are called crows, rooks, or jackdaws.

Historically, the name raven has been given to several of the big-bodied Corvus birds with shaggy feathers on their necks. Mid-sized members of the genus are usually called crows, while the very smallest species go by the name jackdaws. There's also a large-beaked outlier known as the rook, which was named after the unusual sound it makes. But pervasive as these labels may be, they're not scientific and do not reflect the latest research. Despite its informal name, the so-called Australian raven is more closely akin to the Torresian crow than it is to the common raven.

In the U.S., when people talk about crows and ravens, they're usually referring to the American crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) and the common raven (Corvus corax). Telling them apart can be tough, but it is possible for eagle-eyed birders. One big indicator is size: The common raven is much larger, about the size of a red-tailed hawk. It also has a more wedge-shaped tail. As Kevin J. McGowan of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology writes on his crow FAQ page, ravens soar longer than crows, and you can see through their wing feathers as they fly (among other differences). And the birds' calls are substantially different. "American crows make the familiar caw-caw, but also have a large repertoire of rattles, clicks, and even clear bell-like notes," McGowan writes, whereas common ravens have "a deep, reverberating croaking or gronk-gronk. Only occasionally will a raven make a call similar to a crow's caw, but even then it is so deep as to be fairly easily distinguished from a real crow."

You can hear crow vocalizations here and raven vocalizations here.

2. Older crow siblings can help their parents raise newborn chicks.

Like a lot of intelligent animals, most crows are quite social. For instance, American crows spend most of the year living in pairs (they usually mate for life) or small family groups. During the winter months, they'll congregate with hundreds or even thousands of their peers to sleep together at night in a sprawling communal unit called a roost.

Come nesting season, a mated pair of crows might be lucky enough to receive chick-rearing help. Juvenile birds are frequently seen defending their parents' nest from predators. Other services they can provide include bringing food to mom and dad, or feeding their younger siblings directly. One study found that 80 percent of American crow nests surveyed had a helping hand. And some birds become regular nest assistants, providing aid to their parents for over half a decade.

3. When a crow dies, its neighbors may have a funeral.

The sight of a dead crow tends to attract a mob of a hundred or more live ones. During this ritual, the live crows almost never touch the dead one, which rules scavenging out as a motive. Why do they do this? Some studies suggest that the mass gathering is part of a survival strategy: The birds are learning about threats and seem hesitant to revisit any spot where they've encountered a dead crow, even if food is plentiful there.

4. Crows have caused blackouts in Japan.

Since the 1990s, crows have experienced a population boom in Japan, where—not coincidentally—delicious garbage is more plentiful than ever before. This is bad news for power companies. Urban crows like to nest on electric transformers and will often use wire hangers or fiber-optic cables as building materials for their nests. The result was an epidemic of crow-caused blackouts in major cities around Japan: Between 2006 and 2008, the corvids stole almost 1400 fiber-optic cables from Tokyo power providers, and according to the Chubu electric company, crows are responsible for around 100 power failures per year in their facilities alone.

To fight back, Chubu started installing artificial "love nests" in 2004. Made with non-conductive resin, the nests are placed on company towers high above the power lines, where the birds are unlikely to cause any trouble. The strategy seems to be working: 67 percent of the faux nests are currently in use, making life a lot easier for Chubu employees.

5. Proportionally, some crows' brains are bigger than yours. 

According to McGowan, crows are "smarter than many undergraduates, but probably not as smart as ravens."

Crows are so smart and so good at improvising that some zoologists admiringly call them "feathered apes." And yet, from a primate's perspective, crow brains might look puny. The New Caledonian crow, for example, has a brain that weighs just 0.26 ounces. But relative to its body size, that brain is huge, accounting for 2.7 percent of the bird's overall weight. By comparison, an adult human's three-pound brain represents 1.9 percent of their body weight.

Of all the living birds, crows, ravens, and parrots have the biggest brain-to-body size ratios. And in lab experiments, these avians show a degree of cognition that puts them on par with the great apes. In fact, research has shown that they have a much higher density of neurons in their forebrains than primates do. The amount of neurons in this region is thought to correlate with a given animal's intelligence. Theoretically, having more neurons translates to better cognitive reasoning.

A 2020 study looked at whether crows, like humans and great apes, can demonstrate consciousness. Crow brains lack a cerebral cortex, where most of the primate brain's conscious perception happens. Researchers tracked the brain activity in two crows as they performed different tasks, and discovered that they could perceive sensory input—suggesting that there is much more to understand about the evolution of consciousness.

6. Crows have regional dialects.

Apart from the famous caw, caw noise, crows emit a number of other sounds. Each one sends out a different message; for example, cawing can be used as a territorial warning or a way for crows to signal their location to relatives.

This avian language isn't homogeneous; two different populations of crows may have slight differences. As ornithologist John M. Marzluff and author Tony Angell noted in their 2005 book In the Company of Crows and Ravens, the calls these birds use "vary regionally, like human dialects that can vary from valley to valley." If a crow changes its social group, the bird will try to fit in by talking like the popular guys. "When crows join a new flock," Marzluff and Angell wrote, "they learn the flock's dialect by mimicking the calls of dominant flock members."

7. Some crows can read traffic lights.

In Japan, carrion crows (Corvus corone) use cars like oversized nutcrackers. The birds have learned to take walnuts—a favorite treat—over to road intersections, where they put the hard-shelled snacks down onto the pavement. The crow then waits for a passing vehicle to smash the nut, after which it will swoop down and eat the delicious interior.

It's a risky trick, but the crows aren't usually run over because (unlike some people) they've figured out what traffic lights mean. Carrion crows wait until the light turns red before flying down to place the un-cracked nut on the road. The second the light goes green, the crow takes off to watch the nut get run over from afar; it will even wait for the next red to scoop up the nut's insides.

This behavior isn't limited to just one corvid species: American crows have been observed doing the same thing in California.

8. Crows can recognize your face—and hold a grudge.

You don't want a crow for an enemy. In 2011, a team from the University of Washington published a remarkable study about the brainpower of local crows. The researchers' goal was to figure out how well the birds could identify human faces. So—in the name of science—they went out and bought two Halloween masks: One resembled a caveman, the other looked like Dick Cheney. It was decided that the caveman getup would be used to threaten the birds, while the Cheney mask was relegated to control status.

At the five sites, a scientist donned the caveman mask before catching and banding some wild crows. Getting trapped is never a fun experience, and upon their release, the ex-captives loudly "scolded" their assailant with a threatening caw. Seeing this, other birds who had been sitting nearby joined in the fray, swooping down to harass the neanderthalic visitor. Over a period of several years, both masks were regularly worn by team members on strolls through all five test spots. Without fail, the caveman mask was greeted by angry scolds and dive-bomb attacks from crows—including many who'd never been captured or banded—while the birds largely ignored the Dick Cheney mask.

Amazingly, the caveman disguise continued to provoke a hostile response five years into the experiment—even though the team had stopped trapping crows after those first few site visits. And some of the birds who antagonized the mask-wearer weren't even alive back when the whole thing started. The younger crows couldn't possibly have seen the imitation caveman grab an acquaintance of theirs—but they scolded it anyway. Clearly, the grudge had been passed on; birds were still attacking the mask as recently as 2013.

The moral of this story? Mind your manners around crows. Because if you mistreat them, they won't forget you and neither will their friends—or the next generation.

9. New Caledonian crows make and use tools.

Lots of non-human animals, including chimpanzees and orangutans, create useful implements which help them survive in the wild. The New Caledonian crow (Corvus moneduloides) is one of only two species on the planet that can craft its own hooks in the wild. The other is called Homo sapiens. The South Pacific avian uses the hooks—which are made from pliable twigs that the crows bend using their beaks and feet into a J-shape—to extract insects from tight crevices.

Another surprising attribute is this species' bill. Unlike virtually all other birds, the New Caledonian crow has a bill that does not curve downwards. For years, the quirk went unexplained, but scientists now think that the avian's unique beak evolved to help it grasp tools more easily, as well as to better see what the tool is doing.

The New Caledonian crow isn't the only implement expert in the corvid family. In 2016, scientists at the University of St. Andrews demonstrated that the ultra-rare Hawaiian crow, or ‘Alalā (Corvus hawaiiensis), is similarly adept at using and modifying tools.

10. Crows fight off predators by ganging up on them.

Crows have to deal with a menagerie of predators, such as hawks, owls, coyotes, and raccoons. To ward them off, the corvids exploit the fact that there can be strength in numbers. Upon seeing a would-be attacker, crows are known to gather, with some groups consisting of a dozen birds or more. Individual crows then swoop down to deliver passing blows with their beaks, often inflicting serious bodily injury in the process. If all goes well, the target will back off—though it may kill a few of the dive-bombers before they retreat. Corvids are by no means the only avians that mob would-be attackers. Swallows, chickadees, and even hummingbirds have all been documented doing this. In fact, crows are sometimes at the receiving end of mob violence as smaller songbirds often feel threatened by them and lash out collectively.

11. Crows understand a thing or two about impulse control.

A 2014 study shows that at least some corvids can resist the urge for instant gratification—if you make it worth their while. The research was led by University of Göttingen graduate student Friederike Hillemann, whose team assembled five common ravens and seven carrion crows. Through careful note-taking, the scientists figured out what the favorite meal items of all 12 animals were. Then the experiment began.

With an outstretched hand, one of the researchers gave each of their birds a morsel of food. Then, the animals were shown a different piece of grub. The corvids were made to understand that if they liked the second option better, they could swap snacks—but only if they were willing to sit patiently for a certain period of time first. If a bird ate the original treat during that stretch, it forfeited the chance to trade it for a new one.

Hillemann's results showed that the crows and ravens didn't mind waiting around for an improved snack option. As such, a bird with a piece of bread was content to sit quietly if it knew that some fried pork fat would eventually be gained in the trade-off. However, if that same bird's second choice was another piece of bread, sitting tight would be pointless. So understandably, corvids who were put in this kind of situation tended to go ahead and eat whatever they'd been given. Why wait for more of the same?

12. YOU CAN CALL A GROUP OF CROWS A MURDER, BUT SOME SCIENTISTS WOULD RATHER YOU DIDN'T.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the correct term for a group of crows is a murder, an expression bird-watchers and poets have been using since at least the 15th century, which the OED speculates may allude "to the crow's traditional association with violent death, or … to its harsh and raucous cry." But maybe it's time to come up with a replacement. McGowan hates the phrase "murder of crows." To him, it only feeds the public's negative outlook on the animals. "These birds aren't a gang of nasty villains," he wrote in the book Birdology. "These birds are just birds." McGowan would also have you know that American crows rank among "the most family-oriented birds in the world."