The Youtube Advertorial Scandals

It was the Yogscast that made me first realize  how powerful youtubers were. Many game developers feel the same, “It scares me to think how much it would have cost to market my game to the audiences TotalBiscuit, Pewdiepie and Nerd Cubed alone brought to the game,” says Mike Bithell, creator of ‘Thomas Was Alone‘. I would not be exaggerating to say that ‘Minecraft’s’ continued popularity and success was significantly down to the ‘let’s play’ series of Simon Lane and Lewis Brindley. Similarly, individuals like Pewdiepie can be held solely responsible for the resurrection of the horror genre, particularly in the indie scene. It seems weird to think that such Youtube giants were irrelevant three years ago. Personally the turning point for me was observing how the indie game ‘scp-087‘ spread throughout my college as a result of the multiple amusing reaction videos. This hyping of games by my friends who linked me such videos showed me the true power of Youtubers. So with such disproportionate influence, and the ability to make games successful simply by playing them, shouldn’t these Youtubers be held to just as high a standard as traditional media?

This grows more important as ‘old media’ such as written articles and Television become more redundant. It seems that, due to the fact Youtubers rely upon popularity to maintain a presence, there is a disturbing trend for facts to be mixed with entertainment. Indeed there is already a word for this ‘infotainment’. Youtubers, such as Pewdiepie and the Yogscast now are the people who many people rely upon for perspective of the game they might purchase. It goes further than that, because them playing the game engenders its popularity. As such individuals are in the mindset of maintaining popularity and getting views they categorize themselves  a different class of media that is not tied to the same expectations. Reversely,  the other way to look at it is the perspective that we are going to these channels for information when they are entertainment outlets.

All of us know that the testimonials in adverts on the telly aren’t trustworthy, but somehow we forgo this suspicion when it comes to the internet. Its the fact that we believe these are real people, and we listen to them talk unscripted for hours, that allows us to drop our cynical guard. We have an expectation that Youtubers are people who are somehow more real because they work from home and engage us daily. However, the Yogscast is no longer a man in his bedroom using fraps and is fast becoming a media mogul.
The Yogscast is the most viewed YouTube channel in the UK with more than 7 million subscribers. In recent years Yogscast has grown to a sizable commercial operation with a multitude of presenters. In 2012 Yogscast became a registered company with a business team that now offers revenue-share deals to game developers: a limited time cut of games sales in exchange for coverage.However, they still engage their audience in exactly the same way they always have . They do not significantly separate independent content from advertorials and portray them simply as though they were unprompted recommendations.

Regarding the disclosing of paid-for advertorials, Mark Turpin, Yogscast’s CEO and business development manager,  insisted that the channel always includes “a written description below the video.” Turpin refused to say when this became the channel’s policy, but stated that the text the channel now uses to comply with regulations is the  line: ‘A special thanks to [Developer/Publisher] for making this video possible.’ Tuprin added that, “As our content doesn’t go through any form of client approval it isn’t qualified as an advertisement by the Advertising Standards Agency. That being said, they are satisfied by our wording and distinctions made from our other content.” Many view this as insufficient, considering that the audience that watches these videos are, mostly, highly impressionable eight to sixteen year olds. They would not view the Yogscast’s content as an advert even if it was watermarked over the video. It would be ‘another funny video to watch’ for them and probably care little if their favorite presenters are bought and paid for so long as it isn’t  explicit.

In reality this is an issue that is never going to be resolved adequately as there is a fundamental flaw in trying to de-advertise something that is inherently an advert. Every single god-awful ‘Minecraft’ video out there is an advert of sorts. However, there is an invisible line that youtubers must navigate. We cant expect the members of corporations like Polaris and the Yogscast not to take the stacks of cash Publishers are giving them to cover their games when they have lives to support and Youtube is their only income revenue. However, we can expect them to make it undisputedly obvious that it is an advert, and to treat it differently to their normal content. We should also expect them to have a fair conscience, otherwise smaller games with little capital will literally not be able to afford coverage and be locked out of deserved success.  Similarly John Bain (TotalBiscuit)  says, “The risk is that we end up with a situation where channels hold games to ransom and will refuse to cover a title unless the publisher offers a slice of the referral profits.”
People like Pewdiepie and the Yogscast can afford to, and should be, more transparent. According to Business Insider, PewDiePie earns between $140,000 and $1.4 million per month from pre-roll advertisements alone. As one Youtuber put it, “Their audience is kids and they don’t necessarily understand the nature of what’s going on. They don’t have to act this way; they have a huge audience.” They can afford to not behave in this manner themselves and be more honest. One would think that as people come to watch them in their videos its the Youtuber whose interests they want to hear, not the company who is paying them.  Bain sees that such a mindset is in his best interests as he believes that a failure to disclose such a deal might irrevocably damage his career. “I view my business in the long term,” he says. “I’ve been doing this for four years and I intend to do it for 40 years to come. I have to protect my reputation.”
The real problem is however that even if Pewdiepie lost his reputation or the mogul collapsed, another would fill the gap and the same practices would continue. The Yogscast are savvy in that they have more durability. If one smaller member becomes unpopular you simply ship in another ‘Yognaught’ and keep raking it in. There is no incentive not to participate in these behaviors as the organizations view themselves as entertainers first and informers second. Their audience doesn’t care enough about these practices to stop watching their channels and their audience is extremely stable as others simply cant afford to compete with these Youtube moguls and aren’t given enough coverage by Youtube. The system as it stands supports this unethical behavior and so will continue despite criticism.
Indeed Youtube can be blamed for much of these developments  as John Bain explains, “This is a market in which ad-blocking software is on the rise,” he says. He also points out that if a YouTuber agrees to advertise a product in pre-roll that is unavailable in some countries, then no ad will show to those viewers. “That’s a significant part of what has caused the rise of ‘influencer’ videos,” he says. “For most YouTubers, ad-based rates weren’t sufficient.”. Youtube’s related videos sidebar is also hugely swung in the favor of popular channels, meaning many smaller channels are more willing to do deals in exchange for a weeks wages. Many smaller channels earn only from referrals, whereby they will post a tracked link to a game and then earn a fee for each subsequent sale or sign-up.

Recently Youtube’s content has moved from amateur presenters to a commercial tool. The most prominent YouTubers are not only presenters, they are also powerful businessmen. Advertised content should be as distinct from normal content as the preroll adverts . Much of the trouble stems from Youtuber’s ambiguity and silence on the issue, “People must be clearly notified when they are watching sponsored content,” says Bain. “It’s as simple as that.”There needs to be a clearer distinction between independent creative content and paid advertisements. There is something about being able to distinguish between advertisements and shows on television as it puts us in a different more guarded mindsets. There is a clear line of separation which has become blurred over the last few years. However, business practices often follow the money and unless that is threatened it is unlikely to change significantly.