Influencer marketing, in which you look to people with large social network followings to transmit your message and bring some loyal-audience love, has become big with CMOs. Even though there's a lot of fraud in the industry, with many so-called influencers boosting their audience numbers with rented accounts and bots, companies have doubled down on the techniques.
In addition to fraud, there are other ways that influencer marketing can go wrong. For example, recently I spoke with someone about a company whose marketing head planned to more than double its influencer marketing budget. Luckily, the person in charge of the project showed the company that it already had relationships with the few dozen actual influencers in its market and more money would be a waste.
But all of that can pale to the danger of an influencer going off the rails, which is what appears to have happened with the YouTube star PewDiePie. Disney dropped him after The Wall Street Journal reported that the 27-year-old Swedish video comedian had "posted nine videos that include anti-Semitic jokes or Nazi imagery" since August. That was nine too many for Disney, whose business is based on a family-friendly reputation. The Mouse roared and PewDiePie was gone.
To call the 27-year-old Swedish comedian, whose real name is Felix Kjellberg, big on YouTube is like saying Adele is a singer with a strong following. PewDiePie's audience hits an estimated 53 million for his comic videos and his commentaries on playing video games. He ran his business through a Walt Disney company, but no longer.
PewDiePie tried to address the issue on Tumblr, saying that the issue "originated from a video I made a couple of weeks ago" in which he tried to "show how crazy the modern world is."
I think it's important to say something and I want to make one thing clear: I am in no way supporting any kind of hateful attitudes. I make videos for my audience. I think of the content that I create as entertainment, and not a place for any serious political commentary. I know my audience understand that and that is why they come to my channel. Though this was not my intention, I understand that these jokes were ultimately offensive. As laughable as it is to believe that I might actually endorse these people, to anyone unsure on my standpoint regarding hate-based groups: No, I don't support these people in any way.
According to the Journal, PewDiePie had taken down three videos that had a combined 27 million views. In one, someone dressed like Jesus Christ said, "Hitler did absolutely nothing wrong."
That wasn't good enough for Disney, which realized it had hitched its wagon to a now-tarnished star who had been granted editorial independence. Oops. Here's the statement Disney gave the Journal:
"Although Felix has created a following by being provocative and irreverent, he clearly went too far in this case and the resulting videos are inappropriate," said a spokeswoman for Maker Studios, the Disney division that was business partners with PewDiePie.
Over the past year or two, I've been speaking with marketers, consultants, and experts about the influencer marketing trend. A major problem is that inevitably the influencers are young and have seen relatively quick success, making significant sums for acting as spokespersons and promoting corporate interests. They often lack the experience of how media works, which means they are more apt to try things that might escape seasoned vets. But while that can bring success, they also don't know how the business works and may overstep bounds and endanger their relationships with companies.
Advertisers and marketers have to know this. You don't enter new activity without doing research, including looking at the people involved, and understanding the risks. Maybe someone sat down early on with PewDiePie and explained the Disney brand and the types of activities that could cause a major problem. Or maybe the marketing department assumed he would figure that out. Whatever happened, the reality is a brand burned and an entertainer cast off.
PewDiePie will likely survive in one form or another. Ads are still up on his videos, and so he'll continue to generate revenue through YouTube. But when a neo-Nazi site like the Daily Stormer changes its motto to "The world's #1 PewDiePie fansite" and runs an article with a religious slur that claims Disney "viciously attack[s] Pewdiepie for his hatreds," you've got to figure that someone's personal brand has just taken a massive hit. Even though many of his fans seem to approve of his explanation, given notes left on his post, there are few companies that will want their names tied to his for a long time.