More than 800 million L.O.L. Surprise! toys have been sold since their debut in late 2016, and they were one of the top products sold on Cyber Monday this year, according to Adobe Digital Insights. This year, even more toy makers have caught on to the trend. Parents can now buy eggs, pods of foam, cake pops, burritos, and balls of many shapes and sizes containing mystery animals and figurines. (“Unrolling is the new unboxing,” said Ashley Mady, the head of brand development at the company that launched the burritos, called Cutetitos, in October.) Some balls contain “boy-themed” surprises, which include insects, octopuses, skateboards, ninjas, and a packet of a powdery substance, as well as my personal favorite, Poopeez, which are rolls of toilet paper that hold mystery capsules with names including Lil’ Squirt, Skid Mark, and Toot Fairy. (“These new blind capsules are creating a stink all over Kerplopolis faster than a fart disappears in the wind,” according to marketing material on Amazon.)
L.O.L. Surprise! dolls were created by MGA Entertainment, the company behind the oversexualized plastic Bratz Dolls that were a hit in the early 2000s. Isaac Larian, the CEO, told me in an email that L.O.L. dolls were essentially reverse engineered: The company wanted to cash in on the unboxing and collectibles trends, and so it came up with L.O.L. dolls. MGA Entertainment was told, at first, that kids needed to see a product before they would ask for it, Larian said. But L.O.L. dolls proved analysts wrong—kids can apparently want things without even knowing what they are. MGA Entertainment has since branched out into L.O.L. Surprise! pets, L.O.L. Surprise! houses, and larger L.O.L. Surprise! capsules, which contain dozens of dolls and accessories and retail for about 80 bucks.
At first glance, unboxing videos are an especially bizarre phenomenon to model a toy on. Kids are essentially watching other, luckier kids get lots of expensive toys, playing without having to bother with school, or nap time, or that perennial enemy, broccoli. Some unboxing stars have become millionaires—one 6-year-old named Ryan made $11 million last year, and all he really does is open toys, search for toys in his swimming pool, shop for toys at Walmart, meet life-size and slightly creepy versions of his favorite toys, and get along well with his parents. His YouTube channel has 17 million subscribers, and a video of him collecting giant eggs from his personal bouncy castle and then opening them to reveal toys inside has a mind-boggling 1.6 billion views.
There are biological reasons young children like watching unboxing videos, and it’s the same reason they’re drawn to surprise toys. Kids don’t really get good at understanding and anticipating the future until they’re about 4 or 5, Rachel Barr, the director of the Early Learning Project at Georgetown University, told me. At that age, they start looking forward to things that will happen down the road, and so they like watching videos that have an anticipation aspect to them. But kids of that age don’t particularly like being frightened, so they like videos in which they know that nothing bad is going to happen. Unboxing videos and surprise toys allow kids to enjoy the anticipation without being too afraid, Barr said, because they know roughly what will be in the package, just not the exact details.