Influencer Accountability

Several high-profile influencers involved in licensing and collaborations have faced a backlash—in most cases with negative ramifications for their businesses—in the last month, due to past or present racist content:

  • Shane Dawson posted a 20-minute video apologizing for using racist language and stereotypes, as well as blackface, along with other content such as jokes about pedophilia. Target announced it would no longer sell Dawson’s books, It Gets Worse: A Collection of Essays and I Hate Myselfie. Dawson’s joint makeup collaboration with Jeffree Star Cosmetics, which was called The Conspiracy Collection and reportedly generated sales of almost $20 million, recently disappeared from the website of exclusive retail partner Morphe, although it is not clear whether that was due to the controversy specifically. And YouTube suspended his channels from monetization, including Shane Dawson TV and Shane Glossin’, along with his main channel (which has 20 million subscribers).
  • Liza Koshy apologized for using a mock Asian accent and made-up Japanese words in past videos, saying she had thought of them as innocent jokes but has since realized they were painful for some fans. Koshy, who began on Vine in 2017 before moving to YouTube, also has a YouTube Original series, Liza on Demand, has acted in Freakish and Boo! A Medea Halloween, and has a Netflix Original film, Work It, set for future release. In fall 2019, when she had 17 million subscribers on her main YouTube channel, Koshy became the first brand ambassador for the cosmetics and skincare brand C’est Moi, a relationship that is still ongoing as of this writing, and in 2017 she was involved in a jewelry collaboration with charitable brand The Giving Keys.
  • Xbox Mil Grau, a Brazilian gaming brand with a 174,000-subscriber YouTube channel and a presence on Twitch, has been accused of publishing racist, as well as homophobic, transphobic, sexist, and other harassing content on its social media channels since at least December 2018. The channel, known for over-the-top and offensive humor, was founded by Christopher Sena Schlafner and Henrique “Xcapim360” Martins, who appears in its streams and videos, in 2011. Microsoft, whose Xbox brand has been closely associated with the influencers, reportedly began investigating the allegations on May 31—the day after a racist post about the protests in the U.S.—and severed ties on June 3. The brand was then banned from Twitch and suspended from the YouTube Partner Program on June 4 and June 5, respectively.
  • Jenna Marbles announced she was quitting YouTube “for the foreseeable future” after saying she was sorry in a video to fans who had been asking her to apologize for past offensive content including blackface and other racist behavior. Jenna Marbles (whose real name is Jenna Mourey) came on the scene as an influencer in a big way in 2010 and her comedic channel has amassed more than 20 million subscribers. In 2017 she became one of the first influencers to be depicted in a Madame Tussauds wax figure. She has done relatively few collaborations, but she has been involved in limited apparel drops with Scramble and offered a line of plush dog toys inspired by her dogs Kermie Worm and Mr. Marbles back in 2013.

All of these incidents have occurred since the death of George Floyd in police custody, which set off a reckoning about racism that has impacted many celebrities and businesses in various ways.

Controversy, around racism and otherwise, has long been a factor in influencer marketing, of course. Influencers from beauty maven Laura Lee to controversy magnets Jake Paul and PewDiePie, among many others, have been caught in accusations of racist behavior that impacted their businesses, with a burst of such activity occurring in 2018 for example. In many cases, the commercial setback was temporary; while they crossed the line, on-the-edge behavior is part of many of these influencers’ brand positioning, leading their fans to forgive and forget relatively quickly.

The question is whether this time will be different, in the context of serious conversations around race that have been sparked globally after Floyd’s death. Many corporations are rethinking their use of influencers in general. Some are moving away entirely as they change strategic direction in the wake of COVID-19. Some are focusing more on Black celebrities and social justice than on influencers in general. And some are rejecting influencers due to the heightened risk of being associated with celebrities who might disseminate racist content. It remains to be seen whether fans and corporations will come back to these influencers in the future, or whether their actions will have permanent consequences, given the current climate.

A reminder: Raugust Communications recently published its coverage of Licensing Week Virtual, the all-digital replacement for this year’s cancelled Licensing Expo. There are two articles: one takes a look at the key trends from the show’s keynotes and presentations, as well as conversations with sponsors and attendees, while another examines participants’ experience with the platform and the potential for virtual events to complement the live show going forward. Both can be found here.

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