If we’re being honest, I’m not that into beauty YouTube anymore. As a self-proclaimed product junkie, I once could get on YouTube multiple honest second or third opinions on a new lipstick or moisturizer. At some point in my YouTube journey, it became harder to distinguish between who was telling me the truth and who was just trying to sell me something. While I enjoyed watching my favorite YouTubers build careers as beauty influencers — and even a little excited about their new partnerships with big brands I recognized — I got more skeptical.
Part of that skepticism came from seeing how YouTube became a space where someone can make a living. The professionalization of YouTube has meant influencer marketing now blurs the lines between what’s real and what’s for sale. The University of Basque Country’s recent case study said this growing phenomenon of YouTube as an entrepreneurial career path, or “professionalization,” is a win-win for brands that want to reach large audiences and influencers who want to profit from their expertise.
For marketing agencies, beauty YouTube is the perfect storm of brand savvy personalities and authentic storytelling. The case study found that brand affiliation adds to a beauty YouTuber’s credibility, which also made it a better candidate than communities such as gaming, where the opposite may be true. As authors Sergio Monge and Angeriñe Elorriaga point out, discussing brands in product reviews and makeup tutorials builds trust with viewers. However, it is often misconstrued for transparency. As viewers, we may not question if influencers are being as transparent as they should. So, for example, putting “#ad” at the end of a social media post or including vague language such as “in partnership with” isn’t going to cut it, according to the Financial Trade Commission’s (FTC) guidelines.
My love for beauty YouTube started in high school, but my interest peaked in college, right around the time the marketing industry started to shift toward influencer marketing. From 2012 to 2015, I saw the rise of beauty vloggers such as Jackie Aina make the leap from makeup artisan to full-time beauty influencer with the right partnerships. By 2015, influencer marketing became so effective that the FTC published additional messaging about their rules to take a harder stance.
YouTube isn’t the only platform dealing with the murky lines between commerce, social influence and social media use. Within the past year, Snapchat and Instagram have made headlines related to missteps in influencer marketing. Last year, BuzzFeed News reported that advocacy group Truth in Advertising (TINA) filed a complaint letter with the FTC about the vodka brand Cîroc. TINA cited 1,700 Instagram posts about Cîroc, including several photos with the brand’s lead marketer Sean Combs, that didn’t adequately disclose paid partnerships with celebrities.
As someone who eventually did a brief stint in branded content and social-media marketing, I understand why influencers do it. It isn’t a secret that beauty YouTube’s fiercely competitive environment has real consequences, such as influencer burnout, but many have built businesses on their own terms, starting with minimal resources. For instance, Iraqi American Huda Kattan was fired from her full-time job in 2008 before deciding to study beauty. She launched her brand Huda Beauty in 2013 after success as a beauty influencer on YouTube, but Kattan was doing paid and sponsored content to gain momentum.
She told Business of Fashion, “I did this early in my career to help pay some of our first employees’ salaries, but I no longer do any of these, so the content is 100 percent genuine.”
Influencers also aren’t always stretching the truth about products. YouTubers such as Nyma Tang use their YouTube channels to address the lack of products for darker-skinned women in their reviews even if they aren’t publishing takedown videos about brands. While I’m conflicted at times about how influencer marketing has shaped beauty YouTube, I still want to know what my favorite vloggers have to say about certain products. Sure, it means that I have to take their advice with a grain of salt, but therein lies the issue confronting online culture: We have to constantly reframe our relationships with influencers.