YouTubers are no strangers to controversy, meltdowns, divisive content, and everything in between. At best, an ill-judged comment or video from an online star can result in a mob of angry commenters. At worst, a backlash can cause a full-blown catastrophe for their burgeoning brand.
Fans may desert, sponsorships can go awry, and before they know it, the community that built them up brings them crashing down. Before delving into the comeback strategies, we’ll set the stage with some notorious YouTuber controversies.
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One of the most successful influencer vloggers in the world, Logan Paul found himself at the center of a media maelstrom late last year after filming a suicide victim in Japan for his vlog series. Paul gave a swift apology via Twitter the next day, followed by a short video the next day, ‘So Sorry.’ Paul made his comeback with a seven-minute suicide prevention video, which received an encouragingly lukewarm reception of two million likes and 600k dislikes.
He has seen his meteoric rise stunted in the wake of controversy, having his enormous 520% subscription growth in the 10 months prior slashed to a 22% growth in the 10 months after his comeback to the present day and damaging his brand in the process. He remains, however, one of the biggest stars on YouTube.
Laura Lee, whose racially insensitive Tweets from 2012 have recently derailed her once successful beauty channel, has been hemorrhaging subscribers in the last month.
First, she deactivated her Twitter, then, after a few days, reactivated it and posted a statement of apology. Then she posted a video to her account four days later without addressing any of the controversy engulfing her, before finally releasing a widely-ridiculed five-minute video, “My Apology”, nearly a week after the initial criticisms.
Lee uploaded a more sincere YouTube apology video after removing her first one, and recently created a short docu-episode on homelessness—both were poorly received, with her subscription loss so far totaling 600K and counting.
Manny Mua, another beauty influencer who was accused by other YouTubers of “social climbing”, caused enormous damage to his following and has lost 400K subscribers and counting. Mua took a six-week absence before returning to his channel.
He intends to present a three-episode series about his struggles in the wake of his controversy, though he may well find himself in more trouble—he only has to look to Lee to see the danger in playing the victim.
Simply Kenna was caught plagiarizing material for her arts channel of nearly 1 million subscribers and opted to issue a lengthy (and since deleted) YouTube apology video while maintaining her typical upload schedule.
The scandal cost her just 20K subscribers, but the damage to her brand became more evident with time. The channel achieved a 90% increase in followers in the year prior to her controversy, while the year directly after her comeback saw only a stagnant increase of 3%.
The Fine Bros’ attempt to trademark their React series brand caused one of the largest backlashes in YouTube’s history, losing 500K subscribers in just two weeks.
They initially stood firm against criticism, then, with intense criticism mounting, posted an apology video before bowing to pressure altogether and releasing a statement a week later announcing they would withdraw all trademarks—by then, much of the damage had been done. It would take them five months to recover their lost subscribers.
Swedish megastar PewDiePie (real name Felix Kjellberg), who had allegations of anti-semitism and racism leveled at him last year, caused a major outcry in the mainstream press.
He released a short apology, which was liked by 92% of users who rated the video. His controversy was hardly more than a blip, with his popularity rising dramatically this year, adding another 15 million subscribers and increasing his growth to 17% this year from 11% for the same period last year.
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After issuing initial public apologies and temporarily going offline, these wary influencers produced “comebacks” in the form of YouTube apology videos. In a last-ditch and scurried effort to redeem and self-preserve, the YouTubers often admit guilt, express regret, reflect on the lessons they’ve learned, and vow to resume creating content. While the videos may come across as a plea for forgiveness and a mere act to return to equilibrium, some back up their claims to “be a better person” with genuine commitment to do good and make right.
Much of the success of these comebacks is determined by a few factors, principally the size of the fanbase, the initial remorse expressed by the influencer, and the more reflective longer-term goals to win over the audience.
The common similarity between the more successful comebacks is a short, sincere YouTube apology video (PewDiePie, Logan Pau, Fine Bros), followed by what audiences interpret as an honorable devotion to shift their commentary and content focus to causes that they previously tarnished. Paul did this with moderate success with his suicide prevention mini-doc and The Fine Bros embraced their fans’ wishes to not take exclusive ownership of the React series.
It’s appealing for audiences to see people make a genuine positive change and take ownership of their mistakes. The least successful comebacks are often the result of the fans receiving mixed messages and not seeing any change in character after a scandal.
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On the other hand, long-winded, rambling apologies or attempting to achieve victim status don’t sit well with audiences. Even when influencers attempt to destigmatize what they formerly disgraced, audiences detect the phoniness in the acts of influencers (Lee, Mua, Kenna) who self-victimize and try too hard to justify why they made a mistake as opposed to resetting and authentically moving forward.
Lee’s handling of her controversy should be a strategy lesson to all YouTubers of how not to deal with a scandal. Stumbling from one bad apology to the next, she failed to take responsibility quickly, audiences turned on her, and she has likely suffered lasting damage as a result. Similarly, Mua may face further backlash if audiences are turned off by his upcoming docu-series about himself and his struggles following his controversy.
If an influencer is fortunate enough to have a devoted fan base like PewDiePie or Logan Paul, they will likely see their indiscretions forgiven. Influencers who come from comedic backgrounds tend to be more successful in their comebacks, and fans are more willing to forgive creators for controversial content if their overall intent is humorous or if they are confident that it was an out-of-character anomaly. YouTubers from other backgrounds, such as fashion or beauty, likely aren’t awarded the same luxury of loyalty and have to be far more careful.
These YouTubers are not the first to be embroiled in career-threatening scandals and will certainly not be the last. Unfortunately for them, the site’s content moderators can only do so much, though they are making efforts to police content.
Ultimately, influencers and audiences have variable dynamics, and it’s important to consider and listen to the audiences who can just as easily worship YouTubers as they can discredit them. Authenticity forms the foundation of any influencer’s success, so in order to rebound after a costly transgression, influencers who continue a genuine dialogue will come out on top.