Much in the same way that bloggers rose a decade ago to disrupt the media landscape by giving readers immediate access to information over their print brethren, YouTubers have arrived in a similar fashion to give a new, younger audience a fresh perspective on the games they love. Though YouTubers have been around for the better part of a decade, it is only in the last year that this surge of user-generated content has come to the attention of game publishers and developers as they scramble to understand how to work with these personalities. Like the bloggers of yesteryear, this influx of influential talent has led PR professionals and their marketing colleagues to learn more about this next generation of game changers but which camp are YouTubers in? Should they be approached like editors? Do they have the same ethical guidelines as journalists? Are they supposed to behave like reporters in the first place?
In the last month, this notion that YouTubers should adhere to similar ethical standards as editors—i.e. not accepting money for content—has been argued both for and against by many in the industry. Lumping all YouTubers into one batch, though, is a step in the wrong direction toward understanding this novel segment. With journalism, all reporters are held to a universal standard, but this is not the case with YouTubers as there are couple different types of personalities to contend with. Instead, when evaluating a YouTuber, it should be done on a case-by-case basis as each one has their own set of rules; some aim toward being pure entertainers, much like a daytime TV talk show host, while others portray themselves as unbiased and critical, much like journalists, in their assessments of games and yet they still do what they do for entertainment purposes.
On the pure entertainment side of the spectrum, look at popular personality PewDiePie. He doesn’t present himself to be a critical voice in the games industry; his videos are mostly comprised of himself and friends enjoying themselves while playing an assortment of games. By no means is PewDiePie proposing that you should buy X game or stay away from Y genre, he just wants to entertain—and he does, to the tune of two million views per video on average.
Is it unethical for an entertainer to accept a branded deal for content creation specifically? If the entertainer posits themselves as just that—an entertainer, much the same way as, let’s say, a comedian does—then it is this author’s opinion that it shouldn’t be an issue who sponsors the entertainer so long as it is clearly disclosed to the viewer the same way it has been done in television for decades.
On the other side of the coin, you have personalities like Total Biscuit who certainly come with their fair share of opinion and whose audience is craving this sort of critical feedback to base their purchasing decisions on.
Could one who proposes themselves as a critical voice in the YouTube community accept promotion for content creation? While accepting payment to create a positive sounding video could be considered a conflict of interest much the same way an editor would never accept money for a positive review, a YouTuber of this variety may still accept branded deals in the guise of voice acting, using sponsored products, and other promotional considerations outside of specifically creating positive videos about games they wouldn’t otherwise play. Branded deals for a critical YouTuber could be viewed the same as an outlet taking ad money from a publisher to keep their site running. While editors can argue that they themselves do not sell ads and that there is a clear separation between editorial and sales, this distinction isn’t transparent when it comes to YouTubers. Again though, any sort of paid promotion should be clearly disclosed to viewers and readers so the audience is aware of the situation.
Simply put, YouTubers are indeed a different beast and should be held to the ethical standards of disclosure, especially when there is money changing hands. Furthermore, these actions should be made clear by both parties involved. This is where the similarities between journalistic ethics and YouTubers end, though. No matter how critical a YouTuber may be, they are still in the business of entertainment and though some critical YouTubers will not accept money for content creation—and personally I feel this is a great thing if one is positing themselves as a serious critic—a YouTuber may still opt to take branded deals, something a journalist simply cannot do.
It is necessary for an audience to determine the validity of a YouTuber’s content and for a PR pro to keep these things in mind when researching who to reach out to regarding a game or product. If a personality has a reputation for not properly disclosing when they take payment for content creation then they’re not a good target for your game as people will question the integrity of the YouTuber’s words in their videos, much the same way a journalist would be questioned if they were caught taking money to write positive articles. Clear disclosure is the ultimate ethic that all of us in the business of brand awareness, whether it be paid or not, should abide by.