The Year was 2009 and North America was in the midst of an economic recession. Seldom were the days of spending frivolously on items that were ‘wants’ vs needs – instead everyone was hanging onto every penny; feverishly trying to find ways to trim their cost of living. Living through and witnessing a recession as an adult (if you’ve never experienced one before) is equivalent to being tossed into the ocean without knowing how to swim. Why this analogy? You might think it’s an extreme one but it isn’t. Being an ‘adult’ living through an economic recession meant that you had to be smart with your money; even if you were already good with saving or spending your dollars. This was not a drill or trial run – it was real life with immediate consequences and you had to think quick and fast of a successful economic plan in order to keep your family afloat and out of debt.
I consider this time, the boom of personal research – you see, it became common sense and habit to dedicate countless of hours meticulously researching every product under the ‘want’ category before purchasing. This was the catalyst that ushered in the Youtube Community – (as they say, timing is everything). Youtube was the perfect accessory to the recession because it was a sharing platform that enabled normal, everyday folk to upload a video of themselves stating their likes and dislikes of any product and we; the normal, everyday folk would consume this knowledge. Even further, it was more than just a basic advertisement synonymous with television; one could engage with the content creator and you (the viewer) could leave a comment regarding your questions and/or concerns and in turn receive a direct personalized answer.
There was something ‘real’, authentic, raw, uncut, truthful, engaging, exciting and fun learning about great products vs the not so great products through a video sharing platform. Seeing a familiar face and hearing a familiar voice (over time) created trust between the viewer and content creator. I can’t recall what specifically lead me to the Youtube Beauty Community but once I found it, I was hooked. In my everyday life, none of my friends were as beauty obsessed as I was but now I had an entire beauty community who were one click away. The authenticity of each video felt comforting and trusting within the back drop of one’s home and/or bedroom; none of it felt like a production and the tone was simple but effective. In addition, it was common knowledge that content creators gained monetary income from Google Ad Sense however initially for the majority (good faith assumption) this wasn’t the motivation to produce video sharing content. Fast forward to 2017 and a lot has changed!
The Youtube Beauty Community grew exponentially over the years allowing high school students, college students and regular folks to transition and blossom from being an avid content creator into a full time content creator that eventually birth an online career. And while an average camcorder with semi-decent lighting was previously the norm for video content circa ’07 to ’09 – this soon began to change. As competition rose among popular channels, content creators searched to find an editorial edge in order to differentiate their channel from their competitors – hence the dawn and rise of video production value. With the commencement of this new video production status, soon followed dazzling back drops, studio lights, graphic editing, focused lenses and blurry backgrounds – there is an undeniable difference between beauty videos of ’09 vs beauty videos of ’17.
Evolution is the only constant in this world so in order for content creators to improve it was inevitable that change would need to occur; however marketing firms soon began to catch on and take notice to the strong consumer power popular content creators possessed and as a result a mutually dependent relationship was forged. While cosmetic marketing firms annual sales were on the rise (in relation to this new partnership); popular content creators were able to establish working relationships (ie. to become brand ambassadors) along side brands that they once purchased from their local grocery or drugstores. (This is no easy feat by the way so kudos to them). A statistical analysis comparing cosmetics sales between 2002 (40.42 billion US dollars) to 2016 (62.46 billion US dollars) concludes that indeed social media and the sway of popular beauty content creators have contributed greatly to the rise in annual cosmetics sales.
With the increased interest of marketing firms latching onto the Youtube platform (after all over 95% of beauty enthusiasts search for cosmetic reviews there), a new term was created to refer to beauty content creators, “Beauty Influencer” (I do not like this term but I digress). For reference, an ‘influencer’ is defined as “a person who has the power to influence many people through social media or traditional media”. And here in lies the grey area. While it’s exciting and well deserved for content creators to create their dream job, their close brand affiliation is riddled with hierarchies, drama and distrust. If you follow certain (not all) popular beauty content creators on a variety of social medias – you would quickly take notice to the lavish trips, overt pr packages and sponsorships that are being awarded their way. I want to make this very clear – there is nothing wrong with making a career for oneself; these forms of gratuity and lavish gifts have been given to celebrities, magazine editors etc for decades however the meaningful one on one relationship that was once special and helped differentiate the relationship between celebrities and Youtube content creators has shifted. Sadly, the trust has dilapidated in warp speed for those who can identify this anomaly and the unique one on one interaction that was once organically germinated between viewer and creator has been altered.
Within this discussion I have a unique seat – I am both a viewer and Youtube Beauty content creator. I too have received and continue to receive pr samples however it is important to state that I (along with MANY other Beauty content creators) state first hand that our main focus is not on selling products, instead our emphasis is placed on providing constructive feedback to brands (so they can improve) and being honest to our audience so they can become aware, knowledgeable savvy consumers (this is not to imply that all popular beauty content creators are dishonest – I’m merely shedding light on how difficult it is to know their true stance based on their close brand affiliations and relationships). Unfortunately, unless you are a graphics major with a strong editorial knack – the content itself is no long seen as valuable or attractive to brands or viewers if it’s not presented in a high production value package. Undoubtedly, a paradigm shift has occurred and the new expectation of video content by the Youtube audience is one of high graphic editing accompanied by a Bath & Body Works candle being burned in the background. Thus, the original intent of video sharing has changed into a substantial monetary production burden to all other content creators (in an effort to keep up). In order to compete in this newly minted environment one must purchase a costly camcorder with blurry lens, obtain glittery backgrounds or green screens, microphones, a computer for editing, editing software, photography camera, vlogging camera, etc.
As brand affiliations grew, it sprouted homogeneous product placements across various popular channels as well. For example, when a brand launched a specific item it would most likely be featured on 8 out of the 10 most popular beauty channels within a similar time period. Is anything wrong with that? It really depends who’s answering the question – brand or viewer? The answer is varied but the overall tone has changed – what was once a trusted voice has turned into a sales associate (some, not all) who sing high praises of notably new product releases. This is an extremely tense spot because it can be argued in a variety of different ways (and I want to open up a discussion), because a content creator can actually like the product and state his/hers opinions however the strong brand ties pollutes and dilutes their authentic voice. And herein lies another conundrum – would you give a critical review of a brand that just flew you halfway across the world on an all expense paid trip to an exotic island to launch their latest eyeshadow palette? That’s the grey area I mentioned earlier. No one will ever really know.
What stands out is the hazy, foggy truth that few are willing to ask the difficult questions- so I must ask: where have these content creators voices gone? When you merge your personality into a brand (whether it is yours or another’s) – can one continue to be trusted unbiasedly? They’ve gained a lot, but they’ve also lost a lot. As they say, money doesn’t change a person it just amplifies who they really are – so who are they? Are they the same person you once singled out from the vast majority on Youtube? It’s important to note that content creators are only 50% of the equation – brands have become territorial in their pursues and have exerted unspoken expectations as well. So to be fair, it’s not a one sided dilemma – brands have to figure out their role in this matrix in order to save the trust their ambassadors have worked so hard to gain.
So the question becomes, where do we go from here? That depends on you; the viewer. The allure of Youtube is all encompassing – it’s a video library filled with (mostly) useful information. So you can do as I do: I support the beauty channels that have maintained their honesty while accepting pr samples and being the non-conformist that I am – I’ll continue to sit in my living room and try my best to inform you on the good, the bad and the ugly of cosmetic products. Now, you may never see me sipping a margarita on Snapchat while swinging off coconut trees but you’ll always know that myself and many other Youtube beauty content creators are telling you the truth. I hope you found this article interesting and please know it’s not meant to bash anyone it’s meant to open up a discussion that I think is being whispered about; but not being fully addressed. So talk, tell me your thoughts because I’d love to know how you feel – as it’s valuable to me both as a beauty content creator and a fellow viewer.