On the 1st of February 2004, a wardrobe malfunction during the halftime show of the Super Bowl resulted in Janet Jackson’s breast being exposed for approximately half a second. This incident became the most recorded, searched for, and rewatched moment in television history, resulted in Janet Jackson becoming blacklisted, lengthy discussions on declining morality in America, and the coinage of the term “wardrobe malfunction.” Meanwhile, in California, three young men who worked in tech were frustrated by the struggle to find a copy of the video online and decided to do something about it.
One year and thirteen days later, they registered YouTube.com as a domain. Since then, YouTube has become the world’s largest video hosting website, with views on videos reaching into the billions. Ad revenue on YouTube in the second quarter of 2021 is 7 billion dollars, a record for the company. In 2020, YouTube reported ad revenues of 20 billion dollars. For perspective, if YouTube was a stand-alone company, then it would be the world’s fourth-largest seller of digital ads
The Rise of Influencer Marketing
The current highest earning YouTuber is a nine-year-old boy, Ryan Kaji, who has so far earned a cool nearly 30 million dollars with over 30 million subscribers. Another spot in the top ten earner list is a six-year-old girl, Anastasia Radzinskaya “Nastya,” who is at number seven (and the only female on the list) with current earnings of 18.5 million dollars and 70 million subscribers.
Tens of millions of people are watching these videos, fuelled by an algorithm which pushes more videos forward, nearly all of which feature sponsored content. The advertisement game on YouTube is different from anything that came before it in traditional media. Influencer marketing, a form of social media marketing which usually involves endorsements and product placement by social media personalities, is quickly becoming the main channel in which the younger generation view advertisements. According to a 2016 study, one in six YouTube subscribers would follow the advice on what to buy from their favourite YouTuber rather than their favourite TV or movie personality.
Word-of-mouth marketing (WOMM), is, by many measurements, the most effective method of marketing. Today, 92% of consumers believe recommendations from friends and family over traditional advertising, and 64% of marketing executives believe word of mouth is the most efficient form of marketing. Traditionally, before the rise in the 2010s of YouTubers and influencers, WOMM was a difficult strategy to perfect. It relies on the agency of customers, and for services to go beyond expectations. Currently only 6% of marketing executives claim to have mastered WOMM. But the rise of influencer marketing could change this.
YouTubers can create a vast number of extremely loyal fans. Some YouTubers have risen through the ranks, filtered upwards through the algorithm, gaining not only millions of dollars of revenue and millions of fans, but emerging as part of a new wave of celebrity. James Charles began posting make-up tutorials to YouTube at the age of fifteen. Within five years, he had his own makeup line and was collaborating with celebrities such as Kim Kardashian, Kylie Jenner, and Kesha, and had a net worth of $12 million. Fellow beauty vlogger, Nikkie de Jager (NikkieTutorials) began her YouTube career in 2008 at the age of fourteen and has since grown to be one of the most well-known beauty gurus in the world. By 2020 she was made a goodwill ambassador for the United Nation. And it’s not just beauty YouTubers who are becoming well-known figures. Commentary channels, comedy, gaming, LGBT issues, documentary, fashion, extreme sports, TV and film reviewers, cooking, true crime, animation, art…Thousands of people are becoming as much, if not, more familiar than stars from TV and film, and far more personal.
YouTubers, and home-made celebrities in general, depend on social engagement. The more that their viewers interact with their videos, whether that is commenting, liking or sharing it, the more the video is pushed up through the algorithm which allows for a greater audience. A higher view count generates higher earnings from advertisements. If done correctly, a paid sponsorship from a YouTuber can feel like an out-of-mouth recommendation from a trusted friend.
The effect of a parasocial relationship, a one-sided psychological relationship between a media consumer and a media creator where the consumer develops feelings of friendship and intimacy towards the creator, are only amplifying the reach of influencer marketing. The term parasocial relationship was coined in 1956, but it’s meaning has only become ever more relevant. Traditional celebrities have tended to have more formal relationships with fans, especially before the rise of social media. Most YouTubers, by comparison, foster active engagement with their fans. Write the best comment, the YouTuber will give you a shout-out in the next video. Share the video, win some merchandise. Do the right thing, and a fan can suddenly be given direct and coveted attention by the creator. It’s not uncommon for YouTubers, especially beauty vloggers, to speak in the third person. Most YouTubers have some sort of unique intro or greeting to their video, naming their viewers. The aforementioned James Charles refers to his (majority female) audience as “sisters.” The videos from YouTubers tend to be informal and chatty, giving the impression that the person speaking through the screen is a friend, with the angles and lighting carefully arranged to be not too dissimilar to that of a webcam. The regularity of the videos (a lot of YouTubers tend to post once a week on a certain day, with the videos usually being under ten minutes long) add to the familiarity by introducing routine.
Digital Media vs Traditional Media
Typically, younger generations do not trust traditional advertisements or traditional establishments. For millennials (roughly those born in the 1980s and 1990s), 84% do not trust traditional advertisements, and for Gen Z (roughly those born in the 2010s) overwhelmingly prefer new digital media. However, that does not mean that younger people are not immune to advertisements. If anything, millennials, and most strongly Gen Z, take a transformative approach when it comes to how they interact with advertisements. Advertisements, for example, can no longer be politically and socially neutral but instead are expected to take a progressive stance on these matters which can be a risk for companies. Done right, it can become a viral sensation such as this Heineken advert, a four minute long short film which has pairs of people from across the political spectrum assembling flat-pack furniture together, which ranked up millions of views. Done badly, it will go down in infamy, such as the widely mocked Pepsi advert which features Kendal Jenner which appropriates Black Lives Matter protests. Capitalising on social trends is not anything new, the most famous example of this comes from Coca Cola “Hilltop” advertisement in 1971.
As young people move away from traditional media to digital media with a new kind of celebrity, advertisements need to match these trends. However, if utilised properly, YouTubers could become key for advertising to the next generation. Though YouTubers have to declare that the sponsored content is a paid advertisement, there is less of a formality to it than traditional TV advertisement. The YouTuber is someone who the viewer has some form of attachment to through the parasocial relationship, and it is this personal touch which diffuses the distrust surrounding advertisements. If done carefully and with tact, YouTube sponsorships can give the illusion of being word-of-mouth marketing. It is a far more personal method of delivery, having someone who the viewer already trusts look, seemingly directly at them through the camera, and tell them a personal reason why they should trust and buy the product.
While the career of a YouTuber is a relatively young one, the potential of having YouTubers as a vehicle for advertising is vast. The ability for anyone to hit the record button and become an international star by filming in their bedroom means that YouTubers have a range of diversity that mainstream media struggle to access. The small cost and inclusive nature of setting up a YouTube channel enables an extreme board array of niche topics and communities to flourish.