This opinion piece was originally written in early 2015, as an assignment for a journalism course I attended.
This week, YouTube has found itself in trouble again… over Oreos™. More specifically, over what legal requirements video bloggers must follow when making promotional content.
The videos in question, commissioned by Oreo™ parent company Mondelez, feature YouTube stars challenging friends to an Oreo-eating race. I watched a video by musician Emma Blackery, and one by radio presenter duo Dan Howell and Phil Lester. Both videos opened with their host(s) discussing how they recieved an invitation email from Oreo™, and how other YouTubers were also taking part. Both presenters also prominently displayed the messages “this is a paid for advertisement”, and “thanks to Oreo for helping make this video happen!” in their video description.
To me, every presenter made clear that their videos were advertising. However, a BBC journalist complained to media regulation watchdogs the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) that the videos were not obviously marked as adverts. The ASA ruled that all involved videos should be removed from public access on YouTube. (Most videos are now “unlisted”, meaning that only people with a direct link can watch them.)
My usual reaction to complaints and rulings like these is exasperation. Media watchdogs don’t seem to have any faith that people will understand what they’re watching, or that people will notice any details which aren’t in flashing neon letters. The ASAs other actions this week, such as reprimanding Poundland for selling something priced above a pound, and banning a Morrisons advert because it included a child removing the salad from their burger, are good examples.
However, even though I agree with Mondelez’s defence far more than the ASAs complaint, I believe this controversy is necessary. Firstly, it might help more people realise that YouTube isn’t just “the funny cat video site”. It can be a job, a community, and even a livelihood for some users. More importantly, this opens a valuable conversation about how vloggers differ from typical media stars.
Vloggers are celebrated and growing: Howell and Lester have 4.2 and 2.2 million subscribers, while another involved figure, sketch comedy director Thomas Ridgewell, has >3 million subscribers. Their success comes from relatability, not prestige. Vloggers gain their subscribers through direct, friendly conversation which opens a window into their lives.
To many fans, vloggers are not the same as other celebrities. Instead, they hold a nebulous role which is hard to capture, a blurring of “celebrity” with “agony aunt” and “long-distance friend”. If a vlogger made videos with disguised or unlabelled advertising, their genre-blurring role would give them a degree of influence that typical marketing could never compete with. This powerful, hard-to-define influence needs to be discussed, and it needs to be considered in social media guidelines. We have already seen it lead to a situation far more troubling than a debate over biscuits.
Earlier this year, multiple prominent YouTubers were accused of forming inappropriate and manipulative relationships with fans; some of those relationships were physical. These are very different situations, but in my opinion the nebulous status of the YouTubers was part of why their often-teenage victims struggled to speak up. The victims were caught in a situation where they faced both the risks involved in accusing a celebrity and the risks involved in accusing a community member, creating multiple levels of risk and fear.
The Oreo™ complaint was minor and easily resolved. Yet it may spark efforts to tighten the loopholes that exclude YouTube from traditional media limits. It may help create a stronger legal recognition of YouTube as an influential medium, and of social media influencers as a unique category of media stars who need alternate guidelines. Considering everything that’s happened on YouTube so far, and how further social media sites are likely to amplify this hyper-connected status quo, a legal challenge needed to happen.