Unboxing: The new geek porn

It's the hi-tech equivalent of a striptease and it's got thousands of grown men hooked around the world. Tim Walker lays bare the bizarre world of 'unboxing' videos

It has no production values, no nudity, and no laughs, and yet a three-minute silent video of a man opening a cardboard box has been watched online by almost half a million YouTube users. Why? Because inside the box, swaddled in plastic and polystyrene, is a brand new Apple MacBook Air; and because it's a particularly popular example of one of the internet's oddest video sharing crazes: unboxing.

Every time a much-anticipated new technology product arrives in stores – be it an iPhone, a Wii, or a Vaio – one or more of the lucky few who get their hands on it posts a video online of themselves opening the box, layer by layer, to reveal the desired product within. Whoever produces the most titillating tape can generate tens of thousands of hits from the less fortunate – anybody who can't quite afford it yet.

It's a pastime enjoyed almost exclusively by men, who sit alone salivating in front of their screens as the ecstatic climax of each unboxing clip draws closer. No wonder the phenomenon's principal exponent, Andru Edwards – chief executive of the specialist, Seattle-based website unboxing.com – calls it "geek porn". Indeed, his website's dedicated unboxing video channel, Unboxing Live!, boasts the tagline "Vicarious thrills from opening new gear." ("It's similar to an experience you'd have in a strip club," Edwards said. "It's stuff that you're lusting over – you can't have it, but you want it.")

So popular are videos of the unboxing ritual that manufacturers now take note. While unboxing the Nintendo DS Lite in December 2006, for example, Edwards gave the thumbs down to the "invisible shield", a plastic sheet that protected the handheld console's screen, but also mildly muffled the speakers. Nintendo halted the production line and modified its product, before sending it back to Edwards for a second look.

In August 2008, Samsung promoted its new Omnia i900 mobile phone by posting a fake amateur unboxing video on YouTube. In the clip, which is attributed to a fictitious technology blog called Technivator (but is in fact the work of digital marketing superstars The Viral Factory), the phone's box opens to reveal a miniature marching band, who soon explode into tiny fireworks before the touchscreen phone itself is revealed in a wash of dry ice.

"The video was created as a tribute to the creators and viewers of unboxing videos," said Blake Harrop, Samsung Mobile's head of interactive marketing. "These people are the opinion leaders and lead users of our target market." The ad has since attracted more than 2.4 million views; the internet has shifted power decisively from the brands to their consumers.

Martin Lindstrom, author of Buyology: How Everything We Believe About Why We Buy Is Wrong, is an expert in neuro-marketing, "where science and marketing meet". He claims the unboxing phenomenon is a result of so-called "mirror neurons": "Mirror neurons mean, in principle, that when I observe other people doing things, I feel that I am doing the same," he explains. "When I scratch my head, and you watch me doing it, the same regions in your brain will be activated as would be if you were actually scratching your head.

"That's the appeal of unboxing: when you watch other people doing things on the internet, you feel like you're doing it yourself. It's the same as when we look at magazines of beautiful cars and dream of driving them, and it's the reason why women are still seduced by beautiful girls walking in TV ads, supposedly wearing a perfume. Unboxing is a very masculine dream, but girls watch, say, Sex and the City, which is a feminine version of it."

Lindstrom advises his own marketing clients to make their packaging design as exciting as the product itself. Dopamine – a pleasurable brain chemical produced when we reward ourselves with, for instance, a luxury purchase – is released into our systems only fleetingly unless the product we buy involves sustained excitement, such as the psychological journey of an unboxing experience.

Apple's classic packaging design makes it the unboxing market leader, but Lindstrom cautions against crediting the company with originating the trend. "Let's not be fooled here – the concept of the portable player came from the Walkman, and the MP3 player was around for six years before the iPod arrived. The iPod wheel was invented by Bang and Olufsen in 1986, but it forgot to put a patent on it.

"Apple adapts a message very cleverly, about five minutes before it breaks through, and I have great respect for that. They've done it with packaging design, too, but in Japan you could have seen beautiful concept packaging design as long ago as the Seventies. It also appeared in the fashion and perfume industries long before Apple went into it."

Apple and its rivals have made unboxing a mainstream pursuit, but they'll have to be careful: if too many of us discover that we can just stay in and watch a video, will we still bother to buy the company's beautiful gadgets?

It’s an unwrap: Boxes of delight

10-year-old Mac

Two gentlemen named Alf and Adam enjoy some retro unboxing, with a 10-year-old, unopened, Apple Macintosh TAM desktop computer, which they've ordered from eBay for the express purpose of unboxing it on camera. Even this 1998, pre-iPod Mac demonstrates Apple's eye for beautiful packaging. Boxes weren't too eco-friendly in those days, however; Al Gore, who now sits on Apple's board of directors, might have something to say about all that excess cardboard and plastic. YouTube Views: 169,849. tinyurl.com/8g8w26



Beats By Dr Dre Headphones

Andru Edwards of Unboxing.com is the most professional practitioner of the art form, with a camera crew, sound and lighting rig set up in his Seattle home. His preferred choice of uniform is the ironic T-shirt – très geek chic – and each of his videos begins with a glossy intro sequence of a box being packaged in a factory, delivered and opened in a blaze of dazzling white light. Here, in one of his most recent videos (posted on YouTube and his own "Gear Live" website) he unboxes a pair of delectable £275 headphones designed in collaboration with hip-hop hero Dr Dre. YouTube Views: 24, 324. tinyurl.com/7pt3tb



iPhone 3G

Contributors to Wirelessinfo.com , a phone review website, seem to have made this video in a New Zealand branch of Burger King, with a cast of 12-year-olds. Not an exciting example of the genre: the moment of unboxing is fleeting, while the technical detail provided is cursory. But the explanation for the clip's popularity is simple: it was online hours after the phone's release and Apple stores in New Zealand open long before the rest of the world is even awake. YouTube Views: 440,374. tinyurl.com/axyk63



Samsung Omnia i900

This imitation unboxing video boasts a remarkable number of YouTube views, and they're well deserved. Beginning with a plug for a fake blog called "technivator", it shows a man filming himself unboxing a Samsung phone. The box contains a red button, which, when pressed... well, see for yourself (or read the article above). The Viral Factory, responsible for the commercial, has created viral advertising generating over a billion hits worldwide – including part of the campaign for the movie 'Cloverfield'. YouTube Views: 2,407,394. tinyurl.com/6m9zs3



Rock Band

The videogames correspondent of the Florida newspaper 'Orlando Sentinel', "Control Freak" Matt Simantov, created this slick unboxing review of the popular games console karaoke game 'Rock Band'. The technical detail is magnificent: "This is one hunking box," says Simantov, in his Southern drawl. "It weighs about as much as two really fat cats." (There is a second video of 'Rock Band' equipment in action, including an interview with one of its creators, Buzz Dawson.) YouTube Views: 498,720. tinyurl.com/7a9s4e



PlayStation 3

David Abrams, who runs the website Cheap Ass Gamer, received his PlayStation 3 before most US citizens by ordering it from Amazon Japan, where it was released first on 11 November 2006. Abrams made his unboxing video soon after receiving the package on 12 November, and five days before most of his countrymen, who acquired the console following its US release on 17 November. This might explain how Abrams's amateur video managed to generate more than 73,000 hits in its first month online. YouTube Views: 771,662. tinyurl.com/99vave

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