L.O.L. Surprise in Context
By Christine Shin
October 03, 2018
The popularity and success of L.O.L. Surprise is due to the brand’s confluence of ubiquitous cultural antecedents. There are traits imitated by the brand from other successes like the Kinder Surprise, but there are also qualities of L.O.L. Surprise that go beyond these traits and into the product’s materiality. An analysis of this materiality and its meaning helps contextualize L.O.L. Surprise, within prevalent social motifs.
L.O.L. Surprise capitalizes on the product’s ‘unboxing.’ The act of unboxing, assuaging human curiosity to view or open the hidden contents of an unknown package, is an impulse that has been recorded since the Greek myth of Pandora’s Box. A more recent or direct antecedent to L.O.L. Surprise is the Kinder Surprise, an egg-shaped chocolate manufactured by the Italian company Ferrero since 1974. The element of surprise is echoed in the names as well as the behaviors evoked in both products, which require unwrapping multiple layers to reveal hidden objects. The Kinder Surprise contains collectible hidden toys enclosed in plastic, yolk-colored capsules. These are enveloped in edible eggs made of milk and white chocolate layers which are covered in foil wrappers. Where the Kinder Surprise differs from L.O.L. Surprise is in the material form and function of these outer layers. The foil wrapper on the Kinder Surprise often relies on other branded contexts to relay enthusiasm and excitement for the surprise toys inside such as Disney, Marvel, Barbie, or Sanrio. As an edible treat, the outer chocolate shell is also foremost in the Kinder Surprise, which in composition is distinctly separate from the hidden plastic contents.
Unlike the Kinder Surprise egg, every layer of L.O.L. Surprise acts as a holistically branded element entirely composed of plastic in material and content. The seven layers of plastic films can be ripped or peeled away to reveal molded plastic parts that can be dislodged to uncover secret messages, stickers, shoes, outfits, and accessories which slowly and deliberately build off of each other. This culminates in the ultimate reveal of the L.O.L. Surprise doll which is also made of plastic. As a material, plastic has its own connotations, best described in Roland Barthes’ duly-named essay from Mythologies:
So, more than a substance, plastic is the very idea of its infinite transformation; as its everyday name indicates, it is ubiquity made visible. And it is this, in fact, which makes it a miraculous substance: a miracle is always a sudden transformation of nature. Plastic remains impregnated throughout with this wonder: it is less a thing than the trace of a movement. (p. 97)
Barthes sees plastic as miraculous because it “remains impregnated” with the possibility of infinite transformations that defy nature. L.O.L. Surprise is impregnated with the sense of infinite possibilities and surprising outcomes that ultimately lead to the birth of a female doll emerging from an unnatural plastic shell. It is born unclothed, waiting to be dressed and confirmed as an entity that can spit, cry, pee, or change color. L.O.L. Surprise is made of a miraculous substance, but plastic is not only a substance as it can also be descriptive for a state of being.
As Barthes writes in his essay, plastic is “the trace of a movement” and a significant reflection of the times. Similarly L.O.L. Surprise acts as the “trace of a movement” indicative of our times. L.O.L.—an acronym for laughing out loud—has filtered into dictionaries as well as children’s developing vocabularies. The term L.O.L. can be described as a plastic expression, flexible in situation but often sounding “hollow and flat” (Barthes 98) in meaning. Characterizations of the actual L.O.L. Surprise doll can also be expressed as plastic. The dolls are styled with adaptable features that include squarish Betty-Boop like heads, oversized eyes, and infantilizing—yet sexualized—wardrobes that consistently showcase hot pants and short skirts. They are transformed into different characters by drawing from other cultural motifs. Examples include a Sailor Moon look-alike named “Fanime” as well as an all-black clad Gothic lolita named “Dusk.” Drawing on another social motif, the unboxing video, L.O.L. Surprise promotes the creation of these videos in the unveiling of each L.O.L. doll. Not only the unboxing, but the recording of this act, can also be described as “plastic”—it can ultimately be flexed to take any shape or form by the individual to become the “trace of a movement.”
The unboxing of L.O.L. Surprise now lives in the same sphere as the unboxing of a new unopened iPhone or a pack of Bic pens. It is this everyday, plastic quality which lends the brand its context and miraculous state of infinite ubiquity. The impulse to perpetually pursue the surprise ofbe surprised when uncovering the unknown exists as the ancient myth which connects Pandora’s Box, the Kinder Surprise, and L.O.L Surprise.
Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1991