I was in the makeup aisle of a suburban drugstore with two girls who looked around 15 years old. They were standing in front of the Revlon display, looking for a specific lipstick.
One of the girls read out the shade she was looking for from her iPhone, and her friend told her the color was sold out. I remember the girl being upset, saying something like, “Well, of course, because it was in like one of the most popular YouTuber’s favorites this month.”
Forced to attend the sweet 16 of a family friend, I watched as the birthday girl's friends interrupted a speech to say, “Stop everything: Tanya Burr just posted a new video!” (Tanya Burr is a video blogger, or vlogger, with over two million subscribers, and yes, they did stop everything and watch it.)
While I know YouTube “beauty gurus” have huge amounts of subscribers and Instagram likes, it was so strange seeing this, their real-life followers.
Did the girl at the store even want to look at any other shades, maybe explore her options? No, she said she was leaving to check other stores. Did she actually want a new lipstick? Maybe, but I think it’s more likely she just wanted whatever it took to match the girl she idolized online.
Cult-like fan followings aren’t a new phenomenon for teen girls. Magazines and pop stars have always catered to young girls, convincing them they must have that $50 acne cream because so-and-so absolutely swears it’s her perfect-skin secret.
The effect the YouTube celebrity has on this generation is on a whole different level from anything traditional media has had in the past.
19-year-old Bethany Mota has over seven million subscribers, designs her own clothing line at Aeropostale, and was on the latest season of Dancing with the Stars, all because of her online popularity. Business Insider estimates she makes $40,000 a month from just her videos. Zoe Sugg, with about six million subscribers, became a best-selling author last month because her fans bought tons of copies of a book it turns out she didn’t even write.
There’s a lot of buzz about these YouTube stars, commending them for being role models, for being creative geniuses turned young, successful entrepreneurs. I can’t help but be amazed — no one seems to care the girl next-door is now a product-pusher, another piece of the corporate machine. Am I the only one who sees that as these girls grow more popular, they become more strategic, less honest, and less real?
The appeal of the YouTube beauty vlogger is that you can go online and get tips from simple, relatable girls, just sitting in a messy bedroom, like you would from a friend.
At least that’s what it used to be. These videos initially created a community for trusted advice, away from girls at the department store who just wanted to sell you things. They created a place for girls to talk about what they loved.
Now, clicking on a beauty or fashion video is equivalent to watching an ad, except there’s no skip button after a few seconds. There's now even sneaky advertising for completely unrelated things, like audio books, tissues, and food services.
Over the years, corporations, advertisers, and PR firms have recognized the power of the beauty girls — the power to convince a massive amount of girls to go out and spend money. It seems they’ve told them to keep their sponsorships as discreet as possible. The truth is, a beauty guru will rave about a new mascara she bought in a monthly favorites video even though she was “absolutely obsessed” with some other one only two weeks ago. The sponsorship will be hidden somewhere in the description box, sandwiched between affiliate links. There’ll be five other videos talking about the same product online in the same week, and audiences are expected to believe it's a coincidence.
This happens constantly. There are some who don’t do this, but the majority of rising YouTube stars do. I’m doubtful these girls have even used the product long enough to recommend it. I’m doubtful they even like it. I certainly can’t trust them, and the authenticity and relatability that made these videos so great has disappeared.
I know profit is always the purpose, and it’s not wrong to profit off of creating online content. It’s definitely not wrong to turn a hobby you love into a money-maker. YouTuber’s generate revenue from view counts and pre-video ads. In the case of profiting from legitimate sponsorships and product placement, I think it’s incredibly important to include proper disclosure. Isn’t it immoral to hide what you’re doing, given the nature of the largely teenage YouTube audience? Isn’t it disrespectful to your subscribers, whose many views get you a big, fat check every month? Isn't it your responsibility, being a role model to them?
Beauty vloggers proudly give tours of their makeup collections (that belong on Hoarders, let's be real), leaving young girls feeling inadequate and feeling the need to shop. They haul hundreds of dollars' worth of stuff in one video: clothes, candles, and some sponsored products. They successfully persuade their viewers to go out and buy the same. It’s conspicuous consumption, and it’s influencing young audiences to live an unrealistic lifestyle.
In 2009, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) revised endorsement laws after almost 30 years to force some kind of transparency in the digital age, but the law is foggy and seemingly unenforced. There doesn’t seem to be any governance online, not from the FTC or from YouTube, or even Google itself. Money is being made, so of course, any possible negativity is being ignored.
The U.K. Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) specifically ruled last month that U.K. vloggers need to make it clear, in the title of a video, if they are being paid to promote a product. This allows viewers to be more conscious about what they watch. The new rules give some viewers a choice, and it’s a choice I hope the rest of the world offers soon.