(CNN) -- At first glance, it looks like an actual product: A "USB Toaster" that plugs into a laptop to toast a single slice of bread.
Graphic designer Arik Nordby with some of his GotchaBoxes, which look like they contain real products.
"Don't be tethered to the kitchen! Take your toast ... to go!" reads the ad copy on the slickly designed box, which sports images of a pop-up toaster and a busy-looking guy in a motel room biting into a piece of toast.
You can just imagine some poor sap struggling to look excited on Christmas morning after unwrapping the oddly useless gadget. Once he or she opens the box, however, an inside flap reveals the joke. "Gotcha!" it taunts. "There is no USB Toaster in this box. Even the concept of such a toaster is silly and unrealistic. In reality, you, the gift recipient, have been duped."
That's the punch line of the GotchaBox, a series of decoy gift boxes sold through the online store of The Onion, the satirical fake-news outfit. Other GotchaBoxes have featured such nonexistent products as a 28-piece "professional" whisk set and a build-your-own-umbrella kit.
Pranksters are encouraged to put their real gifts inside the gag boxes, then keep a straight face -- or better yet, ask sweetly, "How do you like it?" -- as the recipient squirms with discomfort.
The boxes are the brainchild of Arik Nordby, a graphic designer from Eden Prairie, Minnesota, who got the idea in 2004 after a birthday party for a friend's young son. The boy was visibly dismayed when a toy came wrapped in a box for a coffee pot.
"A few days later, it sort of hit me," said Nordby, who has designed boxes for bike accessories, exercise equipment and other real products. "I love doing Photoshop. I love doing package design. I love to play jokes on people. Why not play around with it?"
Nordby immediately set his sights on The Onion -- whose products include a fake atlas, Our Dumb World -- as a potential partner. Through persistent e-mails, he finagled a meeting with Sean Mills, The Onion's president, and brought him a prototype box for a "home dentistry kit."
In 2006, when The Onion launched its online store, Nordby's GotchaBoxes were among the first products sold.
"There's a lot of people who have ideas for goofy T-shirts and things. And they're not always that funny. But he got The Onion's sensibility. He just charmed us," said Glenn Severance, The Onion's marketing manager. "It makes for great business. Who wouldn't want to sell empty boxes for a profit?"
The Onion sells the boxes for $7.99 apiece, or $19.99 for a set of four. Other GotchaBox "products" include:
• The Visor-ganizer, a storage pouch that "holds up to 7 lbs." and attaches to the brim of a hat. The box reads, "Finally, an alternative to the embarrassing Fanny Pack!"
• iFeast, a combined pet-feeding and iPod-docking station. "Produces earsplitting beep when the water dish is empty!"
• The Kleen-Stride personal debris removal system -- small push brooms that attach to the front of the wearer's shoes.
• The Peaceful Progression Smoke Alarm, featuring sounds of the rain forest. "Awake to your next fire calm and refreshed!"
Nordby meets occasionally with The Onion's writers to brainstorm ideas for boxes and promotional text. His are the only Onion-sanctioned products that didn't originate with the humor site's writing staff, Severance said.
The Onion has so far sold more than 50,000 of the boxes. Those involved said the key to a successful GotchaBox is striking the right balance between plausibility and stupidity.
"We don't want the products to look over-the-top ridiculous," said Nordby, 41, who also designs Bogey Pro, a popular line of irreverent golf gear. "We want them to look awkwardly strange."
After witnessing several unsuspecting people open GotchaBoxes, Severance has noted a familiar pattern: baffled silence or feigned enthusiasm, followed, eventually, by laughter and relief.
"They open the box and get their sweater or whatever," he said, "and then they spend more time reading the box than they do playing with the gift."
By now, Nordby's family and friends are on to his GotchaBox tricks, so he can't fool them anymore. But he still chuckles at the memories. A few people were disappointed, he said, when their boxes didn't contain a USB Toaster.
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