Christmas, if you celebrate it, is largely a time of excess, with many of us returning to our jobs in January with excess withdrawals from our bank accounts and excess deposits on our waistlines. When it comes to the world of packaging, Christmas is often a time when those hackneyed phrases emerge in force in the mainstream press, whether it be in the form of wrap-rage or simply excessive packaging or transit packaging when having gifts delivered to your door.
My four-year-old daughter Aria – largely due to her enjoyment of online videos/vlogs aimed at children – has already found herself jumping onto the ‘must-have gift’ craze that befalls parents around the world at Christmas time, leaving them scrambling around stores (and/or online) for out-of-stock toys. This year her list to Santa included two items commonly requested by children of her age, and that fall into the ‘unboxing’ trend sweeping the online video world: Hatchimals and L.O.L. Surprise!
For the uninitiated, L.O.L. (which stands for Lil Outrageous Littles) Surprise! is a small plastics doll (or dolls) packaged in a plastics ball, with multiple layers of plastics film (with zip seam) over the top to be unwrapped (a bit like the game ‘Pass the parcel’ without the passing aspect!). Inside each layer of film is a surprise gift such as a sticker, and the plastics ball itself includes several LDPE plastic ‘blind bags’, which open to reveal small accessories for the doll.
The product has come in for some scathing reviews online from parents baulking at its price tag but also because of its multiple layers of packaging. But for the marketers of the world, this is a masterstroke. My daughter not only enjoys watching children online opening said L.O.L. Surprise! dolls, but she also finds it fascinating to open them herself. I was interested to see whether the doll is more of a ‘pull’ than the packaging itself to her, and actually she seems to take pleasure from both aspects in equal measure. Rather than dispose of the layers of film or ‘blind bags’, she retains the bags for future use and even rewraps the semi-rigid film over the plastics ball to enjoy opening again. Aria says that the doll is either a “change colour doll or it spits water”.
The plastics ball housing the doll can indeed be retained and recycled for various applications: as a purse, a bathtub, a doll stand or a ‘hangout’ (claims the message on the packaging). And as the doll itself is a surprise – apparently there are more than 45 to collect – children can end up with duplicates of each doll as they attempt to collect the set, another marketing masterstroke.
Aria’s second wish-list gift was a Hatchimal, which takes the unboxing craze and surprise gift trend to new levels. Actually, she’s previously received smaller versions, which remind me of a famous brand of surprise plastics/chocolate egg that originated in Italy in the 1970s. Although the egg is not edible, the plastics used gives the sensation of breaking open an actual egg shell to reveal the small surprise creature/toy inside.
The expensive option that Father Christmas delivered was in fact a giant Hatchimal, which I think impressed me more than it did Aria. The battery-powered egg is activated upon opening the secondary packaging, and the user (ideally a child) has to look after the egg until it’s ready to hatch. This involves stroking the egg to make it glow, and knocking on the shell to get a reciprocal knock from the animal inside. After a period of time, the mechanism inside activates and slowly propels the animal inside upwards, movement that pushes against the plastics shell and gradually breaks it open. Whilst Aria impatiently wanted to remove the broken shell fragments before the animal did it itself, I found the whole Hatchimal ‘birth process’ quite fascinating.
Inside were Hatchimal twins, which resembled dragons or ‘Furbies’ (a trend from yesteryear), which are once again battery powered and talk or communicate with each other. Again, the actual ‘unboxing’ aspect is more rewarding than the actual toy inside, and that is the trend from which the marketers are really gaining traction. Incidentally, the egg can be retained as a home for the little dragon-like creatures.
In our industry, even functional packaging on fresh fruit and vegetables is sometimes labelled excessive by the media and consumers, so where does the unboxing trend fit in? Is L.O.L. Surprise! a gross overuse of packaging, or is it an extravagantly presented toy where the packaging is the predominant aspect of the fun? After all, in Japan packaging is a major part of the ‘gifting experience’. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.
As we enter 2018, the familiar questions of recycling and end-of-life solutions rear their heads again. Marks & Spencer’s wish for mono-material plastics solutions across its packaging portfolio might seem fanciful, but I’m sure there is some consolidation that could take place across certain packaging formats.
However, plastics are complicated materials and they all present great opportunities for specific products as well as challenges to recycling and recovery processes, and indeed the production of recycled feedstocks. Yet it is a challenge that we should embrace as an industry, because plastics are genuinely fantastic. Let’s unwrap 2018 together.