To 3-year-olds, she is an obsession. To their parents, a mystifying annoyance. To YouTube marketers, an elusive moneymaker no one's been able to tap for profit.
To the rest of us, DisneyCollectorBR is a faceless YouTube channel giant that is consistently among the site's top most viewed per month. In April, the channel was the third-most viewed worldwide, coming in right behind Katy Perry. During the week of July 4, the DisneyCollectorBR channel received more views in the United States — 55 million — than any other channel on YouTube, according to data from OpenSlate.
Despite the channel's massive, sweeping, and somewhat perplexing popularity, no one — neither the toddlers who watch with near-religious fervor and their parents, nor executives deeply embedded in the YouTube ecosystem and its economics — seem to have much of a clue who's behind it. In an earlier, more anonymous internet era, popularity and anonymity were more commonly paired. But today, where marketers have wrangled nearly every viral hit and YouTube stars' faces are on billboards in Times Square, staying anonymous amid billions of views is not only unusual, but damn near impossible to pull off.
All DisneyCollectorBR videos start the same way: A difficult-to-place, but seemingly non-American woman's voice says, "Hey guys, Disney Collector here. Today I'm going to show you..." The woman, who shows only her brightly manicured hands, proceeds to introduce and open a children's toy, many of them from recent Disney movies. She then demonstrates the toy's features — what you might less clinically call "playing." She regularly calls a toy's features "adorable," and tends to end her sentences with a singing inflection. In many videos, she also seems to make a deliberate effort to crinkle the toy's packaging, to ear-pleasing effect. As far as plot goes, that's about it.
DisneyCollectorBR's most watched video, an unwrapping of "egg surprises" branded by Angry Birds, SpongeBob, and Cars, recently hit 90 million views. Five other videos have received over 40 million views, and another 15 have over 20 million. The channel's hundreds of videos have been watched over 2.4 billion times — that's more than "Gangnam Style" by Psy.
The videos fit broadly into a popular YouTube category known as "unboxing," where a video shows off the features of a product, most often a piece of technology like the new Xbox. For teenagers and adults with purchasing power, unboxing videos can be a kind of virtual tour of a product in which you're interested. Or, since they're typically made by amateurs, a kind of authentic check and balance on flashy advertising. For kids and toys, it's a little different.
A number of parents of toddlers, the channel's target audience, tell a similar story of their children finding the channel: their kids, fans of the Disney Cars movie franchise asked to watch some related videos on YouTube. From there, they happened upon a DisneyCollectorBR video. When they finished, another one loaded. In the days and weeks following, the kids, entranced for whatever reason by the toy demos, asked for more. The consistent story of organic discovery makes sense, because unless you closely follow YouTube metrics, how else would you find out about DisneyCollectorBR? Despite the channel's immense viewership — the numbers don't lie — there is almost no information about its creator.
Multiple messages sent through the YouTube page, through Facebook, and through a website's contact form went unanswered.
For curious parents, the channel has become a fascinating subject — with both their kids' passion for its videos and its creator's identity something of a mystery. "I heard this crazy voice, and I'm like, What the hell is this," said Jonna Rubin of Framingham, Mass., whose 2-year-old and 5-year-old watch the channel, "with equal fervor."
Elizabeth Olsen, a Portland, Ore., mother of two, said her 6-year-old daughter, who is learning to read, has taught herself to use the iPad's microphone so that she can use Siri to search Disney Collector videos on her own, a solution to spelling struggles. From there, she said she navigates to more videos through YouTube's sidebars, and though she sometimes ends up watching another channel's videos, she usually finds her way back to Disney Collector. "Unattended she could probably watch for two hours," Olsen said.
For adults, it can be hard to understand why kids are so enamored. "I equate it with me looking at the toy catalog from J.C. Penney as a kid," Olsen said. "It's like an infomercial."
And if children of the '80s and '90s think back to the VHS tapes they watched until they melted in the VCR, it doesn't feel that far off — kids do love to watch things over and over again.
Dane Golden, who works in the YouTube channel ecosystem as the VP of marketing at Octoly, a startup that connects brands with independent video creators on YouTube, said he's followed Disney Collector with fascination since discovering the channel through the blog TubeFilter, a kind of Billboard for YouTube. He said he was "bewildered" when he first came across the channel and recognized its massive popularity. He didn't understand the audience, he said, until a number of parents he knew all reacted with an, "Oh, my kid watches that all the time."
Golden did what he called some "due diligence" on the channel and who might behind it — and was surprised to find almost no information online. For kids, he thinks, anonymity might be part of the appeal.
"What I believe to be true is that kids are loving this because the woman never shows her face," Golden said. "You never see anything but her well-manicured hands. She has a very comforting voice. It's just like playing with other kids playing toys. I think she disappears in the mind of the children."
What struck Golden most was not just the host's anonymity, but the lack of affiliation with what are called multichannel networks, known in the industry as MCNs. Almost all large YouTube channels are now part of MCNs — like the music-focused Vevo; Fullscreen, which works with NBC and FOX; or Maker Studios, which sold to Disney this year for $500 million. The dozens of MCNs function like studios for independent YouTubers, providing services like audience growth, monetization strategies, a content management system and statistics dashboard, legal services, partner management, and so on, in exchange for a portion of advertising revenue. By most counts, DisneyCollectorBR appears to be the largest unaffiliated channel on YouTube.
That's not to say MCNs aren't interested in the genre. Maker Studios, whose list of partner channels includes those by Robert De Niro and Snoop Dogg, works with channels like EvanTubeHD, a highly popular channel consisting mostly of a charming 8-year-old reviewing toys (he does show his face), and is aware of the toy unboxing phenomenon.
"These videos tap into some primal human traits and emotions — curiosity, the thrill of suspense and surprise, and the joy of receiving a gift," said Michael Ross, Maker's general manager of family programming. "Almost everyone has watched a kid squirming in delight as a gift is unwrapped — the slower the better (as long as they can stand it)." Disney-owned Maker said they have not worked with DisneyCollectorBR or BluCollection.
"I believe she's an enigma," said David B. Williams, an entrepreneur who spent several years at Disney after they bought his online video startup and has spent 18 years in the industry. "I think a lot of the MCNs whose job it is to pursue channels like hers, have pursued her and have not gotten far."
Williams, who is now the chief content and technology strategist at Endemol Beyond, a new digital division of the television production company behind shows like Big Brother, became familiar with Disney Collector not just through the YouTube marketing world, but also because he happens to have twins who are 3½ years old. In his observation, it is "toddler crack."
"I call it first-person toy porn," he said. "I think it works because it's Christmas morning every minute."
Williams said he suspects the channel is bringing in seven figures a year in advertisements — even without an MCN, channels can easily enable YouTube's monetization settings to have banner ads and pre-roll ads placed on their videos. SocialBlade, which analyzes YouTube data, pegs the number at between $1.6 million and $13 million, considering the number of views and subscribers.
Is it possible an unknown, one-woman toy-reviewing YouTuber is making as much money as the average S&P 500 CEO?
In this case, Disney Collector may actually have little reason to affiliate with an MCN. The largest MCNs frequently sign channels on the promise of growing them faster, in exchange for a percentage of ad revenue. But if you're already huge, and you don't want to be on a billboard, why would you want to give up some of your earnings?
That said, there are some quirks to operating independently. Since you must be 13 to have a YouTube account, the core toddler audience is likely watching using a parent's account, which might explain why the pre-roll ads are frequently for Target or AT&T. If YouTube thinks 35-year-olds are those watching the channel, those are the ads it'll serve up.
So, who the hell is Disney Collector? Best guess: a 43-year-old Brazilian woman who lives near DisneyWorld in Florida, whose husband produces a similar and also popular channel called BluCollection. True Disney diehards who'd like to be left alone while raking in a fortune, so it would seem.
The small crop of fascinated bloggers, parents, and YouTube marketers seem to agree on a few leads. First, that the "BR" in DisneyCollectorBR stands for Brazil, which is supported by some videos she does in Portuguese. Second, that BluCollection, which also reviews toys — with a slight bent to those marketed to boys, though both channels are gender neutral — is produced under the same roof. The two channels list each other as vaguely affiliated on fanpages, and as related channels on YouTube, to support that assertion. The channel also uses a similarly faceless format for its videos. DisneyCollectorBR, with its nail art and enthusiasm, seems to get a little more attention, but BluCollection, with a total of 1.7 billion views, is also almost perplexingly massive. If they are in fact a couple, they're the Beyoncé and Jay Z of YouTube. If no one had any idea who Beyoncé and Jay Z were.
Another lead came from the comments section of a personal blog post written by Julia Arnold, a parent of two curious about Disney Collector's identity. Arnold said she frequently watches the videos with her 4-year-old son, who has taken to imitating Disney Collector with Easter eggs.
In the comments section of the post, which was titled "Who ARE BluCollection and DisneyCollectorBR?," a commenter with no affiliated email address who said he was a friend of the couple identified the pair by name, saying they lived in Florida near DisneyWorld, and kept private, having at some point gotten rid of any social media accounts. Searches of public records revealed people by those names do exist, but past and present listed phone numbers were disconnected or went unanswered.
In a way, DisneyCollectorBR has achieved the modern internet ideal: She is adored (and presumably, rich) for doing what she seems to love, and widely watched but uncorrupted by the annoyances of fame. If only she'd let us know how she does it.