Remember when you were little and you used to look forward to the Toy ads? They came on in late September and mesmerized us until Christmas and then they were gone again for another year. I loved Scalextric, Tonka Toys and absolutely coveted my Six Million Dollar Man action figure.
Oh how things have changed…
I have a three-and-a-half-year-old (Charlie) and he loves YouTube with a passion, particularly the dreaded ‘unboxing videos’. The premise is devilishly simply simple. Toddlers film themselves unboxing new toys and reviewing them – they are often the hottest video on the platform, with views getting in the hundreds of millions.
Surely these are just harmless user-generated videos and kids having fun?
I am sure it will not surprise you one little bit that many of these are owned and financed by the big corporates, such as Disney. They may look like amateur fun, but they are making big bucks.
A recent New York Times article explored the amount of money involved and concluded that the kids are paid handsomely. The reasons are all too evident. This isn’t even seen as marketing. It's merely innocent entertainment (that happens to actively target kids).
One of the top stars is a delightful little tyke called Evan.
This cheeky funster could sell ice to eskimos and he's not even 10. More impressive on the numerical side are his 3.5 million subscribers, 2.5 billion views in total and an average of 75 million views per video. This kid has the same power over toys as Oprah does on the best seller lists. Sales of toys he features last year rose a whopping 65 percent.
I’ve observed my toddler watching these videos and he's mesmerised. He's genuinely entertained and it beats cartoons in his book. I started to ponder why they were so enthralling. Young Charlie happily told me “Evan plays cool games and has cool toys”; reason enough for anyone, especially a three-year-old.
The empathy he has with Evan is clear. He bonded with him because he likes the same toys but more importantly Evan understands how to play with them. This is not some shonky adult pretending. This is ‘real TV’ at its finest with a host who not only knows his audience, but is one of them. This search for empathy is in all of us. We seek it out in people we want to be friends with and will buy off people who demonstrate it to us. Sales to this extent are not complicated - they demand a good pitch, the right casting and a rather clever strategy.
That's only half the story with these videos. Let's add in the rather dark arts YouTube practises around probability and algorithms, or something more innocently referred to as the ‘ YouTube Recommendation Videos’. You know the rather nice spread of goodies when you open up the page? All those really helpful videos that you are really grateful for? Well, this is one of the biggest revenue generators for YouTube and it's not for your or your child’s benefit, but to help advertisers. This is the machine analysing our kids data and sending them to the right products that they will be pre-disposed to.
Charm (it seems) is not the only thing Evan has in his sales pitch; he also has rather clever mathematics. Google has been pretty brazen about this – they are merely helping people. They see these ‘suggestions’ as a way to introduce users to areas of interest they did not realise they had (like Rogue One toys in Charlie’s case).
It is clear as day YouTube is targeting kids and is proud to do so.
Another channel, Fun Toys Collector, is all about ‘kid friendly videos for toddlers, babies, infants and pre-schoolers’ is actually owned by Disney, and they actually market these.
So does any of this really matter? My son absolutely loves them, the videos are charming and have a very clever sense of ‘homemade innocence’. I certainly prefer him watching them to the violence fest playing out in most cartoons. The key is to remember these are a form of marketing and there is a product push here – this is about selling toys. To this end, nothing has changed in the last 30 years. When I used to sit down to watch Scooby Doo or Thundercats, I wanted the toys. The cartoons were just a front to shift merchandise. Maybe things are actually more honest now.
What might be of interest is where these unboxing videos are headed. Disney recently hosted a live 18-hour global marathon unboxing of toys. YouTube stars started opening products in Sydney and ended at Lucasfilm in San Francisco.
I think I better get my wallet ready for the day Charlie comes asking for some Rogue One Toys.
Merry Christmas everyone.
- Dean Taylor is the managing director of Contagion.