If you type in “youtube reviews” into Google search chances are you won’t find many blogs, websites, journals, or articles actually reviewing YouTube content, creators, or the like. Instead what you typically find is either a score of YouTube videos of products being reviewed by someone, usually a vlogger, or you find articles by companies trying to lure you into reviewing their products, for money, on YouTube.
How, then, does the person watching a YouTube video really know when they are getting a conversational piece with someone they admire informing them of a product or service, instead of listening to a paid advertorial?
All forms of media, ranging from television, radio, print, websites, etc., rely heavily on advertisers in order to operate as a business. A YouTuber is no different. They are running a business and they rely heavily on advertisements to help pay for the content they produce. In journalism, there is a wall of separation between the editorial side, or the news, and the advertising side, or the business. This is more noticeable in newspapers than any other form of news media. Television often blurs the lines. For example, in a broadcast news segment you will have different reports that start with something along the lines of “the following segment is brought to you by…” and they run an advertisement of the sponsor for that segment.
Typically the sponsor is only paying for the time slot, not the actual content. Meaning if they want to sponsor the sports section they just get to ensure their ad runs during the sports coverage, they have no say in the way the journalist covers the team. Suppose the company that makes the team jerseys for a local team decides to run an ad during the Friday night football recap. They don’t make the jerseys for the team that beat the team they make clothes for. It would be unethical, possibly illegal, for them to tell the reporter not to mention the team that lost in a negative light. The reporter should be free to just tell the story he or she observed.
Things get stickier when you get into web content. Often you will run into what are called Advertorials, essentially the equivalent of those “Paid Content” spots you see on TV where it’s basically an infomercial. Advertorials are pretty much the same thing. Now as a business if a blog or website needs the money there should be nothing wrong with charging a sponsor for a full article no different than if an advertisers wanted to run a notice in the classifieds of the local newspaper. The key is sponsored content always needs to be labeled as such.
If you are watching a review video of a product, let’s say a cosmetic product. If the reviewer is being paid by the cosmetics company for their opinions or views, they need to disclose this. The reason is they are going to be more optimistic about the product, and thus less likely to talk about any negative aspects. Even downplaying a negative trait could be as bad as flat denying it if the person watching the video isn’t able to distinguish the person distributing the content is biased or not.
Unlike opinion bias in news media, which is frowned upon, but not illegal nor unethical, when opinion is masked by paid content there is a problem. The car dealer can run an advertisement on the local TV news cast telling you all the great deals they have at their lot. The news reporter who investigates accusations of fraud should be free to report their findings on said car dealer without facing repercussion. You can trust the journalist was just reporting the facts, were as if the car dealer paid for an advertisement that looked like a news segment complete with their own reporter, that would be dishonest and misleading.
When you are watching YouTube reviewers make sure you check their other videos. First, there should be some disclaimer up front that the video is sponsored. Then you need to be sure to watch other videos by the reviewer to determine their style, preferences, and tastes to see if they align with yours. If their tastes are similar but their values are not, you might want to consider if you want to support this persons content. If you follow a regular reviewer who constantly trashes the products of one company, but praises the products of another, then all of a sudden the company the bash pays them to write a positive review of a new product, you need to be aware of that so you can determine of the reviewer can be trusted.
Be on the look out for these things when you subscribe to reviewers on YouTube and make sure to engage with your favorite YouTubers on social network. If they disable comments, do not publish their Twitter, Instagram or Facebook accounts, chances are they have something to hide. Even Hollywood celebrities go out of their way to make their profiles public so they can interact with their audiences. If the YouTuber you watch is not doing so, and their content appears to be sponsored, you might re-consider whether or not you can trust this person. Remember when you watch a video, ads or not, they get paid for that video so you want to make sure you are not funneling money into dishonest YouTubers when you would prefer your money to go to those whom you can trust and admire.