Study: Why parents should talk to their kids about viral ‘unboxing’ videos
Even parents have trouble spotting the commercial aspect of some YouTube videos that children simply adore
Unboxing videos on YouTube are just what the name implies: videos of packages being opened to reveal a toy or other “surprise.” Often the videos are shot in unremarkable home settings not unlike those of the average person who’s watching, making the videos feel relatable.
Children — including very young ones — are sold on the magic of the big reveal as entertainment. And they’re sold, too, on the products being pulled from those boxes.
According to a study by researchers at BYU and Penn State, it’s up to parents to help children understand that unboxing is typically a sophisticated form of advertising. First, though, parents have to understand that themselves.
Gone are the days when an announcer says, “And now a word from our sponsor,” signaling time for a quick trip to the fridge while the show pauses. The ads themselves are the show, although with more established and successful child influencers — researchers call them “kidfluencers” — the production team is out of sight and the sales pitch may be subtle.
Unboxing is among the most powerful forms of advertising in 2022 and there’s a ton of money at stake. A single short unboxing video can gain tens of millions of views by children worldwide. When the target is kids, the kidfluencers have enormous persuasive power, argue Jason Freeman, an assistant professor of communication at Brigham Young University, and co-author Frank E. Dardis, associate professor of communication at Pennsylvania State University.
And the children respond as avid consumers through what they and other researchers call “pester power.”
The research, published in the Journal of Current Issues & Research in Advertising, focuses on how media influence children — and how well parents understand the impact so they can help their kids build skills and navigate a media-saturated world.
Children don’t really understand that some videos are trying to persuade them to take certain actions, like buying products, Freeman told the Deseret News. So parents need to figure out the tools of media advertising, including unboxing, in order to have important ongoing discussions with their children that will help them manage expectations, desires and habits as they grow up.
“When parents critically engage with this content created for children, they are able to teach their children how the content might shape their attitudes and behavior,” he said.
Pester power in action
Children are exposed to videos, often including those with a commercial interest, when they’re very young. According to Pew Research Center, 89% of parents report that their kids ages 5-11 watch videos on YouTube, compared to 81% of those ages 3 to 4. Even 57% of children 2 and younger view YouTube content. Pew noted that the child’s age doesn’t seem to impact how often they watch YouTube.
The study said that one-fifth of the top 100 children’s YouTube channels feature unboxing. But even parents may not recognize and evaluate the advertising messages on these platforms.
Some of the kidfluencers become like beloved friends. Consider Ryan Kaji, of Ryan’s World, a child who’s getting rich playing with toys — which kids may not realize are likely provided free so Ryan can promote them, according to Dardis and Freeman. In their study of kidfluencing, the duo note that the child “boasts a YouTube following of 27 million subscribers, with recent figures suggesting that Ryan’s channel brings in around $22 million per year from advertising revenue.” Other estimates put his annual earnings several million higher.
Multiple news stories detail the launch of this mini tycoon. He got started as an adorable toddler who was simply fun to watch as he played with little toys he had or his parents bought him. As his popularity grew, so did the commercial potential — to the point that Walmart got him to launch a line of toys first available exclusively at its stores.
A parent’s role
The study included nearly 500 participants who are parents with young children. After watching a group of popular unboxing videos, they were asked whether or not the videos were actually commercials for products, based on different video cues, including sponsor disclosure text, branding and messages about where to buy items or other “selling messages.”
They found while parents have a very basic knowledge that unboxing videos are commercial by nature, they are less likely to recognize paid promotions if there’s not an explicit disclosure or call to purchase the item featured.
Developing advertising and media literacy skills is an ongoing process, but it’s important. Those conversations help a child become more media literate, which will have long-term value as the child grows and becomes an independent consumer of both media and stuff, according to Freeman.
How companies target kids with advertising has changed a lot even recently, Freeman said. And how to regulate different types of content geared to kids, like advertising, has gotten “really murky.”
It’s important that parents learn about the federal advertising policies designed to protect children, he said. The Federal Trade Commission mandates disclosure if there’s a material paid-for connection between a brand and an influencer, but his research — not just in this study — finds that even parents can have trouble finding those disclosures.
“Paid-for” can mean a lot of things, including sponsorships, literal payment or just free products.
“Watch for cues in the video that encourage your child to purchase a toy. This can include disclosures, calls to purchase, or even branded elements based on brand and influencer collaborations. These things are simple and might only be brief in the video, but they can tip your awareness and indicate that what you’re watching is a paid promotion, not an organic video,” Freeman said in the study’s background material.
The researchers found parents sometimes had a tough time connecting a branded product in a video to the fact the video was designed to tout the product. Separating the fact that videos naturally contain products and that some are in the video for commercial reasons could be hard.
“Our research suggests that the mere inclusion of a brand’s logo does not significantly increase the perception that a video contains advertising” — and mandated disclosure may not be seen as such, the study said. “It may not be until parents notice that their children are being pushed to purchase products that sufficient activation and defensive processing occurs.”
Parents should pay attention to how what their children view shapes their propensity to pester for specific products — and use those opportunities to teach a child about how the content that they interact with can shape their purchase decisions. That foundation will help children become more savvy consumers as they transition into their adolescent and adult years, the study suggests.
Young children, especially, won’t pick up on cues in the videos. The study said they often don’t read well, so text disclosures won’t tell them they’re being sold something.
Kidfluencers get a lot of support, Freeman added. “They’re backed by former executives from really large networks that know how to brand (child influencers) and make them appealing.” That may include efforts to make the videos look homegrown and natural, presented casually, a kind of “by-the-way, I got this cool toy. Check it out.”
“It comes back to the parent being a really important resource to help children as they’re going through those formative years to understand what these messages are — to help them connect their behaviors and attitudes with the things they’re viewing and coach them through that,” said Freeman.
Handheld devices are a big change. Parents used to be able to look up from whatever they were doing and see what their kids were watching. Now, “one of the challenges is they could start watching a series of videos and end up somewhere completely different. And just the proximity of that screen to their face makes it difficult for parents to have those types of conversations that maybe they would have in the past about certain things that came up onscreen,” Freeman said.
Freeman said some parents probably move too quickly toward a very restrictive model of remediation: “You can’t watch it.” While cutting off access protects the child from exposure, it also prevents that child from learning “patterns that maybe they need to learn that are going to help carry them to adulthood and to be responsible users of media and technology.”
“You need to help stretch them and not scare them about media,” said Freeman.
“My advice would be mainly that you’re probably understanding what’s happening on these platforms more than you think, but it’s not just understanding what’s happening there. It’s taking it one step further and having those conversations with your child — making sure that as you’re noticing things that you’re helping your child also notice things,” he added.
The effects of interaction between children and media is still fairly unknown. They’re a hard group to study, said Freeman.
Meanwhile, parents should be aware of current regulations around children and advertising, so they know “when they might want to raise a red flag and then being able to have the conversations,” he said.