Moments after hearing about the L.O.L. Surprise Big Surprise on a Chicago radio station, Crystal Lessner was on the hunt for the popular — and increasingly sold-out — toy.
But first, she had to figure out what it was.
She logged on to YouTube, where a 24-minute "unboxing" video clued her in.
The $69.99 toy, she learned, is quite simple: a glittery, dome-shaped plastic case filled with 50 surprises — four dolls, along with accessories, clothing, charms and other knick-knacks — that must be individually unwrapped. Much of the appeal of the Big Surprise is in its slow reveal. It can take hours, purchasers say, to peel away the toy's layers and figure out exactly what's inside. Some dolls cry, spit or "tinkle." Others change color in cold water.
Watching that process unfold has become a pastime in itself, and there are thousands of L.O.L. Surprise unboxing videos on YouTube to prove it. One, a 13-minute video of a woman opening the Big Surprise, has been viewed 7.1 million times since it was posted Sept. 30.
Lessner fast-forwarded her way through one of them, then set out in search of this season's hot toy.
"I knew it was going to be a challenge to find one," said Lessner, 36. "But I was determined to be a cool mom for the first time in my life."
L.O.L. Surprise dolls — the name stands for Little Outrageous Little Surprise — have become an unlikely blockbuster hit in an era of high-tech, movie-inspired toys. The Big Surprise, which was released six weeks ago, is sold out online at Target, Walmart and Toys R Us, and is commanding up to 10 times its asking price on eBay. (Amazon.com, meanwhile, is selling the toy for $116.48, while Walmart's Jet.com is charging $159.99.)
The toy, industry insiders say, is one of the first to be both inspired by and created for the era of YouTube, Instagram and Snapchat. Executives at MGA Entertainment, the privately held California company behind hits such as Bratz, Lalaloopsy and Little Tikes, came up with the idea for L.O.L. dolls after seeing a proliferation of "unboxing" videos on YouTube. (For the uninitiated, the videos are exactly what they sound like: footage of people, or sometimes just their hands, unpacking a host of newly purchased items, including figurines, chocolate eggs, coffeemakers and even iPhones.)
"Frankly, we were seeing these videos everywhere and thought, why not just bring an unboxing toy to these kids?" said Isaac Larian, 63, founder and chief executive of MGA.
L.O.L. Surprise dolls have taken over Annette Nelson's Minneapolis home.
They're strewn across her living room, stashed in her freezer and lined up around the bathtub. Twice, her daughters, ages 5 and 7, took the toys to a waterpark, where the tiny plastic dolls bobbed through the lazy river alongside the girls.
"We are all addicted," said Nelson, who posts toy videos on her YouTube channel, Adulting With Children. "A big part of it is the element of surprise: Which dolls are you going to get? What are they going to wear?"
MGA is tapping into the frenzy by making it easier for children to make their own unboxing videos. The company is setting up bright pink recording booths in 13 U.S. cities, Toronto and London. The L.O.L.-branded booths, which come with a built-in claw machine and recording equipment, are part vending machine, part video studio. Shoppers can buy the L.O.L. Surprise, then sit down and film themselves opening it. Its message: You could "become the next viral sensation."
And of course, there's something in it for MGA, too. Each video posted on YouTube, each selfie shared on Instagram, becomes an important part of the toy's marketing campaign.
"There was a time when you'd put your toy in a TV commercial and watch sales surge two weeks later," Larian said. "That era is over. Kids rarely watch TV anymore — they're all on YouTube."
The original L.O.L. Surprise — a $9.99 doll encased in seven layers of wrapping paper — quietly arrived in Target stores last year, a couple of weeks before Christmas. There were no large-scale marketing efforts or television commercials (a first in MGA's 38-year history). Instead, executives thought they would discreetly test the waters before a larger release in January.
It turned out to be an instant hit, with all 500,000 dolls selling out in two months. By January, L.O.L. Surprise had become the country's top-selling doll, according to market research firm NPD Group. (As of September, it remained in that position.)
The company last week released a line of L.O.L. cats, dogs, rabbits and hamsters, and has inked more than 30 licensing deals for items such as clothing, stationery and home decor that are scheduled to make their way into stores next spring.
"At MGA we've had many, many big hits, but this is by far the biggest I've ever seen," Larian said, adding that revenue is in the millions. "A lot of times, we have products that work in the U.S. but don't work in Germany or Russia or Korea. The thing about the L.O.L. Surprise is that it is in demand everywhere."
The toy's success, analysts say, builds on the popularity of earlier hits like Hatchimals and Shopkins. Like its predecessors, the L.O.L. Big Surprise has a built-in element of mystery — children don't know exactly what they're getting until they've opened all 50 layers — and is filled with collectibles they can share and trade.
"So much of the fun is getting to the final layer and seeing what you've ended up with, and then figuring out what to do with all of those pieces," said Jim Silver, chief executive of toy review website TTPM. "It's almost like you have to go on a scavenger hunt before you get to the toys."
Finding the item at stores can feel like a bit of a scavenger hunt, too. Crystal Lessner says she spent the better part of a day tracking down the L.O.L. Big Surprise for her 9-year-old daughter. Toys R Us was already sold out, as were the four Target stores closest to her Chicago-area home. Amazon, meanwhile, was charging a $50 premium on the toy. (Jeffrey P. Bezos, the chief executive of Amazon, owns The Washington Post.)
Lessner ended up driving 20 miles to a Target in another town, where she bought the last one on the shelf. She was so thrilled, Lessner says, that she snapped a selfie with the toy and posted it on Facebook.
"First gift of 2017," she wrote. "The hottest Christmas gift of the year!"