Unboxing videos and cosplaying grown-ups are the new kids’ TV

What to make of a sudden interest among adults in revisiting and indulging in children’s content?

A still from 'Spiderman & Frozen Elsa vs Joker! w/ Pink Spidergirl Anna & Batman! Superhero Fun in Real Life :)', a video by Webs & Tiaras that has more than 272 million views.
A still from 'Spiderman & Frozen Elsa vs Joker! w/ Pink Spidergirl Anna & Batman! Superhero Fun in Real Life :)', a video by Webs & Tiaras that has more than 272 million views.

Do you know which YouTuber got the most views in 2016? That’s over 10 billion clicks, to be exact. It wasn’t an international superstar or a sketch comedy group or a gamer. And it wasn’t Beyoncé.

No, that honor goes to Ryan, a 5-year-old who makes millions opening and reviewing toys from his California home. Ryan’s is the biggest YouTube channel in his genre, garnering billions of weekly views. His mother left her job to work on his videos full time.

Ryan’s popularity is the product of a transformation in generational media habits, ushered in by YouTube and similar platforms.

On the one hand, YouTube has been declared the “new children’s TV,” becoming one of the most popular sources of child-friendly entertainment out there. And the YouTube Kids app has made video even more accessible to kids—the promise of exclusively G-rated content, along with customisable parental controls, has allowed parents to feel more comfortable with sharing their mobile devices. This has given children unprecedented power in terms of what they consume. And apparently, what they want is ‘toy unboxing’ videos, which now account for about 20 percent of the top 100 channels on YouTube worldwide.

But we’ve also seen a sudden interest among adults in revisiting and indulging in children’s content. Over the past year, grown-ups have left their 9-to-5 jobs for summer camps, headed to alcohol-free, childlike dances, and doodled in coloring books. This trend—termed kidification, or more incisively, the ‘Peter Pan market’ –allows for a growing reaction against aging and the traditional trappings of adulthood. If 30-somethings can go to adult preschool in Brooklyn, why can’t they vicariously enjoy the opening of a gift?

This article is part of the Cultural Radar series

All in all, it seems that the unboxing trend has given way to a whole new wave of multigenerational entertainment. But it’s not just toys anymore. It seems viewers are moving on from Transformers reviews to more bizarre and action-driven content.

‘Webs and Tiaras,’ the fourth most popular channel in the US in recent weeks (4.8 billion views), consists of video compilations of much-beloved, live-action superheroes and princesses. These clips typically feature grown adults dressing up in costume and acting out weird, wordless skits. Some of the most popular narratives involve pregnancy, getting a shot at the doctor, betrayal, pranks, eating candy, pooping and farting – all reminiscent of Freudian fixations and fascinating and hilarious for children. The rearranging of genres (action + sitcom) and the mix and match of characters (Elsa + Spiderman + The Joker) collides fictional worlds and allows kids to see their favorite superheroes and princesses in somewhat real-life scenarios.

The emergence of this type of video content raises a handful of salient questions for brands. How can kid-friendly brands like Lego and Mattel provide content that is as compelling as these homemade sketches? What can they learn about their target’s appetite for content? In the crowded video-sharing space, what does it take to win the battle for eyeballs? For now, Ryan and Webs and Tiaras have taken the lead.

Veronica Marquez and Ana Turco-Rivas, Flamingo New York

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