Posted on October 27, 2022 in Technology

Why are Youtuber Sponsored Products all so… Weird?

The Process of a Sponsorship

In the past, sponsorships relied on the star power of famous people to advertise their brand. Sometimes this came with money – Nascar sponsorships pay for equipment and some of the driver’s salary so they can put their sticker on the car. Sometimes it came with publicity – getting put on the Wheaties box was a reward all it’s own. Sponsorships were generally mutually beneficial, and combined with an ordinary ad campaign, could do good things for the brand perception. The star has to align with the brand, of course, and it works better if the brand is not significantly bigger than the sponsor is, but it’s an alright way to spend advertising money.

YouTube Stars

The definition of ‘famous’ has changed over the years, and with it, sponsorships have too. At some point, accepting a sponsorship (especially in the music scene, and especially for certain products) was seen as being a sell-out. If you had a sponsor, that sponsor had some control over your behavior. As such, traditional old-media stars started to put some distance between them and their products. It was a point of shame to be taking spokesperson deals from cat litter brands or OTC pharmaceutical products as a well-known actor or actress unless you owned the company. Tabloids and the early internet at large would take it as a sign that they were slipping, losing ‘real’ filming deals, needing money. Of course many still took sponsorships, and some went overseas to do it to avoid alienating their main audience while still getting that sweet sponsor money, but over time, sponsorships retreated and more ordinary commercials came back in vogue. Sponsors spent money making sure a can or box of their product was on screen during a scene in a show, but that money was going to the people producing it, not to any of the actors or actresses on the stage (except filtered through a paycheck).

New media, aware of the idea and also many of its problems, stepped in to offer new ad slots in new places. Instagram influencers gladly promote skincare products and herbal teas from brands that may not be well-known (or FDA approved) but had the money to pay for a social media post. Getting sponsored became a point of pride, because it meant that an influencer’s audience was large enough to warrant paying them to use it. In fact, it became such a point of pride that some even fake sponsorships (and no, they don’t get paid for doing this free advertising) to indicate status and popularity, but that’s a different article.

Youtube post-adpocalypse was a very different place, as well – even the most popular content creators were not making the money they used to, due to a mass boycott by many advertisers who realized all at once that Youtube didn’t really care which videos their ads played in front of. A niche formed. Youtubers and sponsors suddenly had need of each other.

A Different Kind of Ad

However. A Youtube sponsorship caters to a unique niche, one where the viewers are usually on the younger side, unwilling to hang around for the post-roll ads, and may or may not be seeking a more parasocial form of entertainment where the star of the show seems to be addressing them directly, instead of the old-fashioned, impersonal kind where stars don’t break the fourth wall.

How to explain which products flooded into this gap and which pointedly avoided it is tough – Coke doesn’t do Youtube sponsorships, but it did run an ad campaign where it bought gifted subscriptions on Twitch for middle-sized streamers (if only to play the clips of the streamer realizing how many subs they just got in a more traditional commercial). Charmin will run pre-roll ads, but it won’t sponsor the Youtuber to pitch them as a product. It seems as though a company founded before some critical date simply doesn’t trust the Youtuber to deliver the pitch, and a company founded after, does.

Even that’s not the entire picture, or else every young company would be pitching sponsorships.

The Common Thread

Most of these products aren’t doing sponsorships because they want to, they’re doing it because it’s the last avenue they have that still works. Many of the products are weird, or nearly the same as other, already-existing products, or subscription services, or products that can’t be explained in a simple panel ad. Some are totally unsellable by normal channels, and the Youtube sponsorship route is all they have left. If they can’t, for whatever reason, buy a 10 second pre-video commercial, they go for a sponsor instead.

Look at the same-y products:

VPNs distinguish themselves by advertising, not by the quality of the product – the cheap ones are all pretty much the same. NordVPN and ExpressVPN are both just buying access to servers in other countries and then selling that access to you, neither is doing something particularly special.

Mobile games are much the same. Raid: Shadow Legends is just like any other mobile free-to-play mmorpg out there, just with a better advertising budget – it’s willingness to let Youtubers say whatever they want about the game, so long as it’s positive, has turned it into a meme, creating fond impressions of a game that would normally be overlooked in a traditional ad.

The Raycon earbuds? Nearly the same as other generic brands that do the same thing – the generic brands, however, do not cost 30$, and they can’t afford a YouTube sponsorship as a result.

Manscaped products, which promise a revolutionary experience, are ultimately just beard clippers and trimmers in a brown color scheme instead of a black or red one.

The controversial choices that only have YouTube left, like Betterhelp, cannot sell their product elsewhere because elsewhere, people still remember. Almost none of the original controversies surrounding Betterhelp have actually been ‘fixed’, they just took a break from sponsorships to let the heat die down.

And the ones that need a minute of your undivided attention to fully explain their pitch, like Hello Fresh and Blue Apron? These brands are both big enough to sponsor articles and ask for reviews from legitimate publications, and the product itself seems to work fine, but it’s just not the sort of thing you can pitch without establishing brand recognition first – Youtubers explain the product better in their own words than a more professional-sounding ad copy can, and if they’re vegan, or have food allergies, and can still use the product, all the better.

The Weirdness

None of these products (except Betterhelp) are necessarily bad, but they’re not exceptionally good – they just spend a lot of money on sponsorships and sometimes Youtube pre-roll ads over more traditional commercials or internet ads elsewhere. Given the parasocial nature of a Youtuber and their fans, it creates this weird feeling that the Youtubers are overhyping the product, when realistically they’re just… sponsoring it. A friend would tell you if a product they tried was mediocre, and Youtubers kind-of-sort-of want you to think of them as an entertaining friend. The sponsorship relies on them selling this product to you, something a friend is not going to do if they weren’t pleased with it.

Perhaps the larger, older companies realize this – Youtube sponsorships haven’t been a thing for very long, after all, so while the short term has great yield, all of it is untested in the long term. The younger companies are the guinea pigs. All of these products are being filtered not only through the Youtuber themselves, but through the relationship the Youtuber has with their audience, and Youtube as a whole. The results, so far, are mixed.