How are YouTubers blurring the lines between their content and sponsorships?
Clarissa Sabile, Contributor
Picture this: it’s the weekend and you’re scrolling down your YouTube feed to watch a video that your favourite channel just posted. For an agonizing five seconds, you have to put up with an advertisement before seeing this gamer/beauty guru/etc. Then, after mashing the ‘Skip Ad’ option, your beloved YouTuber raves about a product or company that they’ve been loving lately. For some, this is just another video and, after watching, one would go through the patient cycle of waiting for the YouTuber’s next post. But recently, for most, viewers have been feeling suspicious of well-known accounts in every topic area: from clothing hauls, to game releases, to vlogging, due to the creators blurring the lines between their own content and advertising company sponsorships. On one end of the spectrum, it can be considered harmless and some creators genuinely share their lack of monetization – the repetitive mantra that is ‘this is my first impression and personal opinion’ is what fashion and makeup YouTubers claim to somewhat avoid sell-out labels. On the other end, some YouTubers have hit advertising scandals that lost them followers and, more importantly, respect.
Advertisers caught on to recognizing the vast audiences that popular content creators attracted, the next step was simple: glorify our products in exchange for money. An appealing offer, since all one has to do is implement the sponsorship in the videos they already post daily. The main issues are when the YouTuber does not disclose or lie about whether they are being monetized for the advertisement, or when the product or company being advertised is a scam.
In January this year, controversial, clickbait-heavy, YouTubers like Jake Paul and RiceGum (Bryan Le) were under fire for promoting the website Mystery Brand, which is essentially a gambling website to win from a range of luxury to cheap products by online payment. With a majority of their viewers being male youth that could only afford expensive items with the help of their parents, especially with the low chances of winning anything of value, the scam problem is clear. In the same vein, the video game Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and players of it were under scrutiny in 2016 due to a lotto website case that promoted gambling to, again, their young audiences. Popular gamer YouTubers like Tmartn (Trevor Martin) and Syndicate (Tom Cassel) were called out for encouraging viewers to gamble on sites for digital skins to use in game or exchange said skins for real life money. In reality, the chances are low and the website and YouTubers were also accused of exploitation and scamming.
In another context, prominent beauty and fashion YouTubers have been selected and sent on all-expenses-paid trips to summer getaways in exchange for vlogging their experience and using the company’s product. For example, in January last year, the cosmetics brand Benefit sent UK gurus Talia Mar, Leyla Rose, etc. to a Maldives resort. By uploading a “GRWM” (Get Ready With Me) using Benefit’s new mascara product and name-dropping the company in any subtle chance they get, the YouTubers receive vacation time, money and more content ideas. Some consider this a “Glam Sham”, thinking that influencers are using their viewers for profit.
Generally, yes, most of the blame should be placed on the YouTubers. They aren’t held at gunpoint to explain how good quality a pair of jeans are from a poorly-reviewed online clothing website. In a free world and unrestricted online playground, sponsorship agreements are widespread. However, YouTube’s advertising algorithm has been an issue in itself. Influencers rely on ad monetization before and during their videos – when YouTube considers something to disregard their ‘Community Guidelines’, as in rules that ensure YouTubers make appropriate content, prohibiting any ads on the video. Therefore, YouTubers have difficulty receiving any monetization whatsoever from the platform itself and must turn to sponsorships from outside sources. In doing so, YouTubers should align their ethics with the way they advertise and the products or companies they advertise to evade any scam controversies.