Each year, it seems like one toy rises above the rest to become the must-have item for Christmas. Last year, it was Hatchimals. This year’s breakout toy, according to a market-research firm, will be L.O.L. Surprise! dolls.
The NPD Group released its annual list of the predicted fastest-selling toys for the 2017 holiday season and three of the top 10 are from the L.O.L. Surprise! brand: Dolls (1), Lil Sisters (3), and the Big Surprise Ball (8).
For anyone who is not eight years old reading, L.O.L. Surprise! dolls are three-inch figures that come inside an egg wrapped in layers of plastic. They cost less than $10 and are available in more than 45 styles that kids collect and trade. Each layer contains a surprise: a secret message, stickers, a bottle, shoes, outfit, fashion accessory, and a doll that can spit, cry, pee, or change color (you have to open the entire egg to find out what doll is inside).
The dolls have been hugely successful since MGA Entertainment (the manufacturer that makes Bratz and Little Tikes toys, among others) launched them late last year. Target sold out almost immediately during the 2016 holiday season. Sales increased 500% each week last December and more than 2.5 million had been sold as of April of this year, according to Forbes.
Kids are going so crazy to collect them that L.O.L. Suprise! dolls could be a crucial victory during a decidedly glum year for toy retailers. To understand why kids love these plastic dolls so much that stores literally can’t keep them on the shelves, you’ll need to understand two oddly specific yet wildly popular online obsessions of America’s kids: unboxing videos and surprise eggs.
Unboxing videos are the new commercials
L.O.L. Surprise! dolls were specifically created to be unboxed. In the age of the touchscreen, where any kid who can independently use their index finger has access to YouTube, toy unboxing videos have become an industry in of themselves, with an audience size similar to Taylor Swift and WWE in the US.
Typically, videos feature a pair of disembodied hands taking new toys out of their packaging and displaying them to the camera while giving a review. During the 2016 holiday season, Ryan ToysReview, a channel that features a six-year-old opening and playing with new toys, was the most popular YouTube channel in the US, and the second largest in the world.
The titles of popular videos are an exercise in the strange logic of SEO marketing aimed at toddlers: “Angry Birds Toy Surprise Jake NeverLand Pirates Disney Pixar Cars2 Spongebob Huevos Sorpresa” has 110 million views; ”Play Doh Ice cream cupcakes playset playdough” has 855 million.
Experts speculate differently (paywall) about why unboxing videos are so popular. It could be about sharing in a fantasy, advertising-weary consumers seeking honest representation, aspirational thrill-seeking of a climactic moment, humanization of e-commerce, or simply pursuit of the raw pleasure that comes from opening a new item.
Enter L.O.L. Surprise! dolls, the toy that tells kids to “Unbox me!” right on the package. Every L.O.L. Surprise! doll offers a unique unboxing experience because of its layered unwrapping, which kids are encouraged to film and post to YouTube. The strategy was so successful that the company recently launched 15 unboxing video booths in the US where fans can buy dolls and create unboxing videos up to five minutes long so they too can “possibly become the next viral sensation.”
“I’ve been in the toy business for 37 years,” MGA CEO Isaac Larian told Forbes earlier this year. “There was a time you put the toy in a television commercial and that sold the toy. Those days are over.”
In a New York Times piece from 2014 (paywall), writer Mireille Silcoff, presciently declared that “surprise eggs… are the powerhouse plaything in children-oriented unboxings, the videos that seem to really go viral.”
If kids love videos of toys being unwrapped, then they especially love the toys in those videos to be surprise eggs. Ryan ToysReviews’ most-popular video, “HUGE EGGS SURPRISE TOYS CHALLENGE Inflatable water slide Disney Cars Toys Paw Patrol Spiderman” has almost a billion views. (Yes, a billion.)
On the Blu Toys Club Surprise channel, 157 million watched someone open 150 eggs with the same kinds of prizes inside you might get from a supermarket gumball machine. Check out any popular YouTube channel in the genre and you’ll find similar results: kids love toy-unboxing videos featuring eggs that have some element of “surprise,” no matter how mundane or banal that surprise may be.
So MGA’s affordable doll—which comes wrapped in its own surprise egg that’s meant to be hunted for, marveled over, collected, and shared—is a pretty good bet on success in today’s toy market.