Capitalism with a Human Face: Vlogging and the Developing Faces of Consumerism

by apatheticacademics



We are in the middle of a media revolution. The most watched and read people in the world right now are not the usual ‘old media’ forms of news, drama or comedy, they are vloggers (video bloggers). Those ever cheerful faces that are popping out of every corner of YouTube, documenting the everyday activities of a revolving door of millennials. These bedroom warriors are set to make vast fortunes from the sponsorship deals and advertising revenues that their videos generate, all targeted at the communities that have developed around these online personalities. Celebrity endorsements are not a new thing, however, the genial and subtle way these endorsements are projected is starting to become problematic with these vlogger’s enduring popularity. This is especially apt when we consider the evidence that vloggers are replacing celebrities in tests concerned with commercial influence[1], especially within younger age groups. How do we stay critical of the manipulation produced by adverts when we don’t even know we are being advertised to? Can we see a new capitalism emerging from this, a capitalism that pretends to be your ‘friend’ in a bid for profit?

It is hard to not be cynical about these fresh faces on the cultural landscape, on the surface they are merely a symptom of our increasingly narcissistic society, positioning themselves between entertainment and voyeuristic technophilia. If we dig deeper they claim to be bringing people together, creating communities and in the process giving a voice to the voiceless. This has certainly struck a chord with the teenage and twenty-something market, the most popular online personality Felix Kjellberg (or PewDiePie to his YouTube followers) earned in excess of $12million between 2014/15[2] and is set to make even more in the coming year. The numbers involved seem staggering for those people who have never heard of these online stars, Kjellberg has over 40 million people who are in regular contact with his online content, while one of the most popular British vloggers Zoe Sugg, screen name Zoella, has over 11 million people engaging with her videos every day. These people are becoming a huge part of the global media and in the process are beginning to shape our current idea of what culture is. And ultimately all of this popularity means one thing: money.

When YouTube introduced adverts to its videos in 2007 these stars were able to make money by placing adverts within their productions, [3] developing these once personal videos into commercial jobs. As such, money started dictating what these stars were talking about, the holidays they were taking and the products which they were using, all paid for by outside companies. If we consider this as the next evolving form of culture (these people have now released books, TV shows, films etc.) then we need to critique the way in which audiences are targeted by these ‘friends’ and what this means for the future of capitalism. With these approachable, and somewhat likeable characters, brands have easy access into the minds of the next generation and are building within them a loyal consumer base eager to buy into these lifestyles.

In 2014 the ASA, the national body that governs the advertising of products in the UK (Advertising Standards Authority), had to restructure itself to deal with the emerging of this new phenomenon. It decreed that when “a vlogger is paid to promote a product or service and an advertiser controls the message”[4] they must acknowledge that this is an advertisement. There are key phrases within the message which are challenging, it does not cover the incidental inclusion of products within the videos or the endless free gifts which are bestowed upon these people and shown off on a daily basis. It also does not cover the adverts that are placed on each video by YouTube itself, something the vloggers don’t have personal control over (see the Zoella fast food ‘scandal’)[5], with some commentators stating that these adverts could actually fall foul of the ASA’s standards should they be investigated.[6] Vloggers, however, are becoming wise to this and are restructuring their online presences to be within these laws. Legally, according to the ASA themselves, “a video doesn’t become an ad just (because) it is paid for”[7] this is followed by the fact that they don’t actually “regulate sponsorship” in any of this online content. So these vloggers sit outside of regulation with the products they are sponsoring, and ultimately selling, to their millions of fans. Therefore no regulatory body can hold them to account for false advertising, for shoddy products or for even promoting things that can be damaging and harmful. This is especially troubling when we consider that the most active consumers of vlogs are 13 – 17, who are widely regarded as being very influenced by the products they see.

But do these ‘ads by the back door’ actually work? The evidence here is scrappy, however a recent article in the New Statesman, citing Google analytics, claims that all of the products in Zoella’s ‘February Favourites 2016’ video[8] skyrocketed in sales, with two of the products completely selling out within the first week of the video going live. As well as this, recent evidence from the online digital marketing company Sydny, claimed that reviewers and vlogs are trusted “12 times more than brand written content”.[9] With investment in these online deals likely to see returns of around “144%” with the right campaign and targets.

Why is this damaging? Haven’t these people just found a way to harness their fame and in the process make money and isn’t that the point in our economy and society? This is damaging because these vloggers are not just celebrities endorsing a product they are your “friends”. In a recent video, and in a lot of his others, Alfie Deyes (PointlessBlogVlog: 3.4 million subscribers) boyfriend to Zoella (combining to form the depressing portmanteau Zalfie, so alike with the word selfie that it almost uncovers their drastically narcissistic personas), addressed his 3.4 million followers with the phrases “I want to know what you’re doing”[10] and “I’m interested in you”. This is where the problems with these videos become very apparent, these are not just brands placing products in front of the consumer. They are your trusted “friends” sneaking a product into your backpocket while hugging you. Zoella herself, in a biography piece in the Financial Times, is described as being a “big sister”, [11] merely just sitting in her bedroom dispatching advice to her online siblings, albeit at £20,000 a pop. This creates a new form of capitalism, one which can be described, in Žižek’s terms, as capitalism with a human face. This phrase stems from one of the main questions from the exsocialist states of the 1960s/70s, in particularly the former state of Czechoslovakia which questioned: can we have socialism with a human face? This was a way to democratise communism with emphasis being placed upon people, stressing the need to engage with the state and centre policies upon people giving them, albeit faux, power. Slavoj Žižek brings this into capitalismby claiming that charity is capitalism with a human face, [12]  deconstructed in more depth in another AA piece[13]. However, we can see a development of a different use of this phase when we consider these Vloggers, they are placing the person at the very heart of their business model, using their personalities to sell products and lifestyles to their followers. This all relies on the creation of a community through which these personalities can manipulate their fame to their own gains, feigning interest in these people’s lives while taking their money and gifts, there is a PO Box address on Zoella’s YouTube channel if you were feeling generous.[14] This is a construction of a new underhanded form of consumerism, one that pretends to be your friend and then manipulates this ‘friendship’ for profit.

These vloggers are the solution to a problem that the manufacturers of products have been trying to negotiate, how do you command a level of authenticity and empathy to sell our products as a big business?[15] This is the dawning of a new form of capitalism, an actual person selling you products and a lifestyle that you see as a friend and as someone who actually has an interest in you. This is of course a fallacy. These businesses only care about the continuation of their profits and the vloggers, as puppets within this charade, are complicit in the manipulation of fans that only want a personal connection with someone they admire. This is even more disturbing when we consider two things, the age of the people engaging with this content and the continuing popularity of this art form compared with traditional media platforms. These are the next generation of media consumers and they are already becoming accustomed to this form of manipulation and within this something is lost.

We are all, give or take, fairly literate when it comes to understanding advertising: someone is trying to sell us something therefore we watch, we participate, but we do so with a certain level of scepticism already engaged. This is almost non-existent in the vlogging world, people are engaging with this content as if these were an authentic representation of these people’s lives, not paid for by a large company concerned with sales. We can see the sinister side of this in a recent video blog series by the vlogger Louis Cole (funforlouis who has 1.8 million subscribers on YouTube) shot on a trip to North Korea.[16] This was a trip so devoid of critical engagement, cultural understanding or acknowledgment of any type of underhanded state manipulation it could easily have been edited by the North Korean secret police themselves. In this series he is seen enjoying abundant food, although the country is on record as being in the grips of famine, [17] he is seen relaxing in a water park and ‘playing around’ with their secret service bodyguards. The problems with this series of videos are too numerous to mention and could only be made by a dreadlocked white man who ends every sentence with the word “bro” completely devoid of any cultural sensitivity. However, the most disturbing aspect in these videos is the way that even a horrendous state such as North Korea could manipulate this vlogger phenomenon to their own advantage.

We are in the middle of a media revolution and unless we can position ourselves to understand what these vloggers are actually doing, we will be helpless to their manipulation. Only by critically engaging with these people can we fight off this capitalism with a human face, something that has the potential to erode an important layer of scepticism, regulation and healthy disrespect for the world of advertising which we have developed. More importantly it will guard us against people who are roundly condemned from all sides, such as North Korea, gaining a foothold within our culture. These vloggers are not our ‘friends’, they are tools in the next wave of unchecked and unregulated manipulation of our culture and this needs to be understood before it is too late.