Some of the most powerful voices on the internet are YouTube creators (also known as YouTubers). With followers that can span into the several millions, YouTubers are highly sought entertainers and experts in video categories such as gaming, makeup, lifestyle, travel, and more. However, these online personalities sometimes exercise poor judgment, producing distasteful content, ignoring social mores, violating rules, and even breaking the law.
When an indiscretion or offense occurs on the part of an influencer, the same machinery that accelerated their ascent can also be used to tear them down. However, the fallout isn’t always limited to the person committing the transgression. Partners, businesses, brands, and others also suffer negative consequences from their association with controversial figures.
High profile influencers can make for high profile YouTube controversies. From Federal Trade Commission (FTC) violations, to stunts gone awry, to inappropriate comments, to reckless content, YouTube creators have been accused of committing a varying range of offenses on and off the streaming video site. However, backlashes can sometimes extend far beyond the YouTuber, enveloping platforms, as well as the brands that partner with the influencer.
1. Laura Lee
In the most recent YouTube controversy, Laura Lee, a popular makeup influencer, was scrutinized for racist tweets she made back in 2012. Using the “N-word” and mocking people of color, the distasteful Tweets sparked an online outrage that has resulted in Lee’s channel losing hundreds of thousands of subscribers. Lee’s brand partners have joined the exodus, with Ulta halting the release of a planned Laura Lee Los Angeles beauty line. Several sources are reporting that Lee has now lost several major sponsorships in the aftermath of the controversy, including partnerships with sunglass brand, Diff Eyewear, makeup purveyor, Morphe Brushes, and beauty box subscription service, BoxyCharm.
Lee has since apologized for the Tweets on social media. In a video, entitled “My Apology,” a tear-filled Lee offered regret, stating, “I’m so sorry for disappointing you.” Lee went on to claim that her errs were “Retweets,” and described them as both “vile” and “hurtful.”
Felix Kjellberg, better known as PewDiePie, is the highest ranked YouTuber in the world with more than 65 million subscribers. However, the online star has become one of the most controversial figures on platform in recent years, making headlines for both anti-Semitic and racist comments. According to a review by the Wall St. Journal, PewDiePie posted nine videos between August 2016 and February 2017 that included “anti-Semitic jokes or Nazi imagery.”
PewDiePie has defended much of his controversial YouTube content, offering that he “jokes” and likes to “push boundaries.” In February 2017, Business Insider reported that someone who’d worked with the top YouTuber claimed there were differences between Kjellberg and the PewDIePie “character” he plays. Later that same year, PewDiePie came under fire for use of the “N- word” during one of his Let’s Play livestreams. The embattled YouTuber then posted a video, called “My Response,” where he stated, “I’m really sorry if I offended, hurt, or disappointed anyone with all of this. Being in the position I am, I should know better. I know I can’t keep messing up like this. And I owe it to my audience and to myself to do better than this. Because I know I’m better than this.”
While PewDiePie continues to add subscribers, his various YouTube controversies haven’t come without consequences. YouTube has pulled ads from his videos, and canceled the second season of his YouTube Red show, “Scare PewDiePie.” Disney, who’d previously partnered with PewDiePie through their Maker Studios unit, has also parted ways.
3. Logan Paul
With more than 18 million subscribers, Logan Paul’s prank videos and vlogs have created a massive following for the 23-year-old YouTube star. In late 2017, however, a video by Paul which showed a dead body in Japan’s “Suicide Forest,” created a swell of outrage online.
The since deleted video, which had come with a disclaimer about the content, was at one point stated by Paul to be about “suicide awareness.” Many balked at that claim, accusing Paul of making light of suicide. In a subsequent apology video, entitled “So Sorry,” Paul offered remorse. “I’ve made a severe and continuous lapse of my judgment,” Paul said, continuing “from the bottom of my heart, I am sorry.”
Paul later posted a suicide awareness video, entitled “Suicide: Be Here Tomorrow.” and has announced work on a documentary about suicide. Paul also said he has plans to contribute $1 million to suicide prevention.
In the wake of the YouTube controversy, the streaming giant temporarily suspended Paul’s channels from their top tier ad network, Google Preferred. A month later, the platform pulled all ads from Paul after he posted a video where he “tased” dead rats.
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Many influencers ensnared in various YouTube controversies have apologized for their words and/or actions. However, with so many YouTube viewers being impressionable upon young people, it’s important that everyone involved — influencers, platforms, and businesses — do a better job at preventing future issues.
In an industry that places a premium on maximizing virality, the cultural and societal implications of controversial and insensitive content aren’t always considered in advance. For brands, working with controversial YouTubers can sometimes amass big numbers, but views and engagement aren’t the only metrics businesses should be concerned with. Partnering with high profile YouTubers who represent a brand’s values not only has the potential to reach large audiences, but also incentivize others to produce principled content.