26 Nov 2014

YouTubers and ads: does it pay to be honest?

They are massive stars and their endorsements can be better than primetime ads for brands. But as the advertising watchdog clamps down, do YouTubers risk falling foul of the rules?

They hold up a mascara brand and enthuse about how long it makes their lashes look; or an item of clothing they’ve just found which is great with their new jeans.

In most cases – or that’s what the YouTube stars say – they genuinely love the product, and so will their hundreds of thousands of fans, and that’s that.

But in others, like the videos which the advertising standards agency (ASA) has just ruled on, it’s a different matter. The ASA said five videos on YouTube, all featuring Oreo biscuits and YouTube stars or “vloggers”, have breached advertising rules.

The agency said that it wouldn’t have been clear to a viewer that Oreo had editorial control over the videos. Where there was a disclaimer, it came at the end of the video, after the ad had been seen.

The ASA said: “Ultimately it pays to be honest. Vloggers build their fan base on the originality and authenticity of the material they produce. It’s potentially damaging to their reputation to be found to have hidden the fact that the content they’re producing is paid for and controlled by an advertiser.”

But it’s a new and sometimes misunderstood world: the boundaries have shifted, and brands are racing to catch up, hoping to get their products in front of young consumers, who typically watch less traditional TV advertising and more YouTube video. It’s worth pointing out as well that, for many young people, the issue of what is and what isn’t advertising is perhaps less important than it used to be, which is why content marketing has taken off so dramatically online.

But how does it actually work?

Tanya Burr screenshot

In the UK, according to digital researchers L2, YouTubers control 57 per cent of searches for brands on the site.

In April 2014 Unilever launched a YouTube channel AllThingsHair, featuring content from popular bloggers including Zoella and Tanya Burr. Unilever is using Google data to see what customers are searching for, and then asking bloggers to make videos to meet the demand.

Rather than compete with YouTubers, Unilever is seeking to collaborate. There are disclaimers on the site, albeit only visible by clicking the “read more” button on the video description. In some of them, Tanya Burr is described as a “paid ambassador” for the site.

Dominic Smales of Gleamfutures, which manages the career of some of the UK’s best-known bloggers and YouTubers including Tanya Burr, Alfie Deyes and Zoella, told Channel 4 News: “We totally support anything that makes the relationship between talent and audience as honest as possible… this is a really new space and it’s evolving all the time, and we are keen to be at the forefront of compliance.”

While he recognised their appeal to the 18-25 year-old age group, Mr Smales said his aim for his clients was to ensure a long illustrious career entertaining people, not marketing products.

More financial clout?

But with the increasing power of the YouTuber comes new ways to make the lifestyle pay.

Jon Ross of media agency Social Fuel says that while 12-24 months ago lots of YouTubers would have been invited to, and freely attended, a launch event of a product, now he is finding that those with more online followers are asking to be paid to attend. And the presence of only four to six of them on the red carpet can do the trick, publicity-wise: “You don’t need a lot of vloggers to start that viral effect.”

But, needed or not, there are an awful lot out there.

Byron Rawlings is making money from brands by running The Blogger Programme – a website that brings together some 500 commercial companies with over 10,000 bloggers and YouTubers. In the manner of a dating agency, they can upload a profile to meet their perfect match. But Mr Rawlings says that in this developing industry there are no rules: some do it for love, some for commercial gain.

“Each blogger is different: there’s no set fees unless you have an agent, and even then the amount charged can vary,” he said.