Social media: When a YouTube star goes too far
Here’s definitive proof that “digital stars have arrived,” said Todd Spangler in Variety.com. YouTube celebrity Felix Kjellberg, better known to his 53 million subscribers as PewDiePie, is embroiled in a public relations meltdown worthy of a Hollywood idol. After The Wall Street Journal revealed last week that the 27-year-old Swedish comedian had posted nine videos online that included anti-Semitic jokes or Nazi imagery, Kjellberg apologized for what he called gags that went “too far.” It was too little, too late for his biggest sponsors and business partners. Disney’s Maker Studios, a network of online video creators where PewDiePie was the star talent, cut ties with him, and Google canceled his show on its YouTube Red subscription service. Nissan, which paid him for a promotional video last year, said it wouldn’t work with him again. Kjellberg is the “poster child of YouTube stardom,” said Madhumita Murgia in the Financial Times. Some 9 million people a day tune in to watch the college dropout play video games and crack jokes—an audience “larger than those of most cable TV networks.” He earned an estimated $15 million last year, “well above the average salary of a Fortune 500 chief executive.”
It was inevitable that a scandal of this sort “would emerge in the rapidly changing world of YouTube stardom,” said Nathan McAlone in BusinessInsider.com. Social media celebrities are now getting their own shows on traditional cable networks or streaming services such as YouTube Red. But many of these YouTube stars built their massive fan bases at least partly through shock value. Kjellberg swears profusely in his homemade videos and casually uses the N-word. One of the videos highlighted by WSJ saw him hire two Indian men to hold up a banner reading “Death to all Jews.” Advertisers and media companies initially turned to internet celebrities like Kjellberg “as a way to reach the ad blockers and cord cutters of the world,” said Sapna Maheshwari in The New York Times. But in their desperation to tap this elusive young audience, many firms skimped on the vetting and oversight of their new digital partners. In the wake of Kjellberg’s implosion, experts say companies are now likely to focus on whether an internet celebrity is “brand safe”—though how they’ll draw that line or enforce it isn’t clear.
Despite all this furor, PewDiePie is “still going to make millions,” said Madeline Berg in Forbes.com. Although some advertisers might try to distance themselves from Kjellberg, the sheer size of his following means that his YouTube videos will likely bring in some $7 million in ad revenue this year. And while networks and studios can refuse to cast traditional Hollywood stars when they say something dumb or racist, there’s nothing to stop PewDiePie from churning out videos—offensive or not—from his apartment. ■