ASKING THE HARD QUESTIONS
We asked students, graduates and faculty to weigh in on the debate. Is hiring youth to be Influencers a positive business trend, an inevitable trend? Are producers and consumers being protected from potential exploitation; is industry regulating the industry or giving it a free ride? Are there other questions which need to be asked & answered? We think this is a start…
- What are the ethical considerations around hiring youth to sell to youth?
- Are parents short-changing their kids if they’re not turning them into paid influencers?
- Should all youth graduate from high school with the ability to brand themselves? Should these skills be mandated in curricula?
- EvanTube, an 8 year old YouTuber with 1.3 Million subscribers and 1.2 Billion views. Great idea or grave exploitation?
- The teen years are a critical period for identity formation. How do we feel about this trend to commoditize young people and hire them to be brand influencers? It may make for a great "media buy" but are there developmental concerns?
- Is the marketing/tech/entertainment industry doing enough to regulate and protect the young people selling their influence?
- Is the marketing/tech/entertainment industry doing enough to regulate and protect the young people selling their influence?
- How can young people be media savvy when media pitches and paid influence are cloaked as friendship and community?
- Are most sponsored ads accepted by the community? Do you EVER see pushback?
What are the ethical considerations around hiring youth to sell to youth?
Let’s face it, brands are on the lookout for influencers. Specifically, young people who can really help move a product…. people with a real ability to make something cool. Traditionally, they might be seeking someone of significance in pop-culture, usually a celebrity.
More and more, though, influence means finding youth with social pull on their peers. The bigger the audience, the better. If you can get one kid that makes a pair or sneakers cool, you can probably get all their friends wearing them too. Then we introduce social media into the equation, and all of a sudden the reach of that influencer, and brand, goes through the roof.
Now what? A bunch of kids are wearing a particular pair of shoes because they’re cool. The problem stems from having youth selling to other youth. Should we be paying more attention to the kids that brands are choosing to sell their product? What makes for a good influencer, anyway? Is it their following?
Marketers are using these tactics to infiltrate groups of kids, and frankly, they’re having a lot of success.
Are parents short-changing their kids if they’re not turning them into paid influencers?
Think back to about a decade ago. If you had asked the average kid about becoming an influencer, you’d get nothing more than a blank stare. Well, things have changed…a lot.
These days kids are developing followings on social media that go well into the hundreds of thousands, and in some cases many, many more. Naturally, there’s a reason behind it. If you have a following that’s valuable to a brand and you’re afforded the opportunity to become a lucrative business.
For parents this can be unfamiliar and frightening, and rightfully so. Who’s to say that brands aren’t trying to take advantage of the youth they deal with? After all, at the end of the day a company has to be profitable. They’re going to try and get the best deal they can negotiate.
So imagine, your child tells you they want to start working with brands. At that point, chances are they’ve already probably had some offers. So you’re faced with a decision. Do you let them go ahead with it or not? Some parents are saying no, while others are embracing it, and in some cases maybe even taking things too far.
That raises a question, though. If a kid is presented with the opportunity and a parent says no, is that short-changing them? A lot of young people are having success working as influencers, so why not give it a shot? Is it an ethical issue, or maybe parents just aren’t familiar enough with this new practice?
Should all youth graduate from high school with the ability to brand themselves? Should these skills be mandated in curricula?
On the surface the questions seems a bit absurd. Why on earth would teenagers need to brand themselves and what good would it do anyway? Kids are in school to learn how to learn, not to be commoditized. The short answer though, is the world of work is changing dramatically, and a personal brand may be the difference between getting hired and collecting a government unemployment cheque.
Graduating and getting a job ain’t what it used to be. These days if you get a job it could be part time, could be a short term contract, could be a series of random days and times that make up a week’s worth of work. There’s a very good chance the pay will be slightly above minimum wage, and you’ll have to tap dance your way through 2 months worth of contract work, a part time job as a back up, and a stretch where you have no job at all.
Welcome to what’s being called the “precariat”, otherwise known as the world of precarious work. This world demands a wide skill set, unmatched flexibility, and a continuous level of entrepreneurship. You have to stay focused, sell yourself and have an unwavering faith in your ability. In other words, you need the same approach as those teens trying to make a living on YouTube.
If you’re trying to make money – even make a living on YouTube - here’s what you need:
Entrepreneurship – You need to know exactly what you’re selling and exactly what it’s worth
Branding – What is it that makes you “you”, and who does that appeal to?
Performance & Presentation – You need to present yourself in a way that makes what you have to say worth listening to…it’s got to be positive and engaging.
Hard Skills: You have to know your platform (YouTube) – how it works, how to post your video, how to shoot, and how to edit.
Soft Skills: You need to be able to listen to feedback and criticism, ignore the rude and outrageous and focus on what can improve your product. Do that and you are on the road to developing a following.
Negotiating Skills: Once you get noticed and someone wants to hire you, how do you negotiate the deal? Do you know your value? Do you know whether you’re being treated fairly or taken for a ride? That all leads to…
Research Skills: The only way to assess your brand, the value of that brand to your followers and the value to companies who want to hire you for your influence is to put your nose to the Google grindstone and do your homework. Skip this step and you leave yourself open to exploitation. You know, where everyone in that incredibly famous band is making millions – except the drummer.
Now, look back over that list of skills every YouTuber needs and tell me that’s not a great foundation for every young person entering the workforce. Okay, maybe you don’t need the video skills if you’re not on YouTube. But you do need those hard skills for whatever employment stream you find yourself in. Those are, in the vernacular of Vegas, table stakes. You just can’t get hired without them.
So back to our original question, should we be teaching high school kids to brand themselves? What do YOU think?
EvanTube = an 8 year old YouTuber with 1.3 Million subscribers and 1.2 Billion views - great idea or grave exploitation?
Professional child actors in films, television series, and commercials are protected by various work regulations – either via ACTRA or SAG or Equity, all of which clearly outline payment, work conditions, etc. But what about amateur YouTube stars? What happens when those fun little videos parents take of their super cute and precocious children are found to be wildly liked, and a 9-year-old suddenly is part of a $1.3million USD annual household income?
EvanTube started off as a fun project between a filmmaker Dad and his son where toys are reviewed. The audience for the channel EvanTubeHD and its sister channels EvanTubeRAW and EvanTubeGaming has ballooned to a combined 5 million subscribers, drawn to Evan’s charm and love of toys and video games.
Of course, with popularity, comes brands looking to leverage promotion. While EvanTube adheres to the American Federal Trade Commission regulations of social media channels declaring brand partnerships and provision of free products, the partnership videos have a very different tone.
For example, EvanTubeHD’s video on visiting Legoland California is high scripted, using phrases children don’t naturally use to describe their surroundings, and the video description reads like a product brochure. In this video toys were provided by Target. Although talking toys comes naturally to Evan, this video again felt more packaged and less natural.
Can children at home tell the difference between the content provided for passion, versus partnership content with brands?
Also, what if Evan or his sister Jillian decide they no longer want to make these videos? Or any other child YouTube stars?
In Evan’s case, it is reported that his father tucks money away to save up for Evan and Jillian’s education. But does every YouTuber parent have their child’s financial security in mind?
When brands work in collaboration with the parents of child YouTubers, what labour protection is there for the children?
How can young people be media savvy when media pitches and paid influence are cloaked as friendship and community?
Young people basically have to become social media detectives in order to distinguish between advertising and entertainment on most influencer channels. Most sponsorship disclosures are veiled in a hashtag (#sp/sponsored or #ad/advertisement) or hidden at the very bottom of the video or photo description. While these disclosures are better than nothing they are still nowhere near as transparent as advertising in other youth-targetted media.
In a poll of 1500 teens conducted by Variety Magazine teens described YouTubers as: someone just like me, who understands me, someone whom I trust, and has the best advice. These descriptions not only showcase how emotionally attached youth are to their favourite YouTubers but also their view of YouTubers as trustworthy and authentic.
Marketers are keen to exploit the trustworthy relationship social media influencers have with their followers, and know that a well placed product recommendation by such an influencer will gain more consumer traction and brand loyalty than any other form of online advertising. Young people need to be on alert when consuming influencer media and learn to consider that the product recommendations they are receiving from these “friends” might not always be for their benefit but instead for the influencer’s financial well-being.
The teen years are a critical period for identity formation. How do we feel about this trend to commoditize young people and hire them to be brand influencers? It may make for a great "media buy" but are there developmental concerns?
Svetlana Lilova – Registered Psychotherapist and Counsellor MA. RP.
Identity is about clarifying a distinct sense of self and finding where one belongs. Typically during the teen years, when consciousness begins to explode after the slumber of childhood, a person actively searches for who he or she is, while forming affiliations with select others. For many, differentiating from the parents becomes very important, while for others, conforming to the family, culture, and tradition is preferred. This is an experimental stage in life, where young people consciously try different things, explore different personalities, test their abilities and limits, and experience themselves in different ways. It’s the childhood process of identity formation made conscious.
The teen years are also marked by abstract thinking; observation, comparisons, contemplation, imagining one’s self in hypothetical situations and envisioning ways others might see them. Teens also seek a reflection of themselves in others; they’re gauging cultural norms; adjusting to biological changes and of course there’s the emotions. They’re also trying to deal with innate drives and complex needs while they figure out their frame of reference. These child development milestones are readying them to navigate choices and contemplate the bigger, more puzzling questions in life. The benchmarking of those questions eventually shapes their morals, values, and ethics.
One of the strongest needs a young person has is the search for belonging and accomplishment, and adolescence is a stage where a sense of self and direction in life really begins to take shape. The feedback from others becomes a constant barometer for self-reflection.
This business shift amongst youth to sell their influence raises concerns about what’s real and the nature of connections. At a time when connections are so vital, building friends and contacts only to use them for business building purposes seems sadly superficial. Social skills become truncated because it’s not about building meaningful relationships. Relationships become about monetary gain.
Importantly, our need for physical, hardwired contact is shortchanged and cues are missed because everything happens online, and the person begins to lose the ability to understand others; corporate interests take over and the personality that is developed remains a shell of what the person can be, disconnected from their truth and the breadth of their possibilities. All sacrificed for the singular gratification of instafame and few bucks.
Is this what achievement looks like now? Is this the new definition of success? Is the person building value, contributing something meaningful? Are they going somewhere other than peddling consumption for someone else’s commercial gain.
If your self worth is based on getting others to buy, what does that say about our values and the type of world that’s being shaped. What quality of life will this generation face, what contributions will they make to the country’s real value?
In the end, seeing life as a game of influence may lead to success, but what else? How many will manage to learn to navigate their emotional lives, deal with past hurts, get along with others, persevere in the face of the uncertainties life delivers? I am keeping my fingers crossed. For them. For all future generations. Because that’s possible. But this vision for youth leaves me hollow.
Is the marketing/tech/entertainment industry doing enough to regulate and protect the young people selling their influence?
I don’t think it’s as black and white as this. I think there are too many players in the game to look at it simply as these industries being the “protectors”. There are certain players that are the protectors and certain players that are the predators. Industries are made of different interest groups, including companies selling a product purely for profit, or those with strong corporate responsibility (CSR), consumers, and organizations trying to educate consumers and regulate the industry as a whole… to name few. I think some of the interest groups are definitely trying to protect young people, whereas I think there is veiled exploitation in other scenarios (on both sides).
We’ve got one side trying to protect young people. Generally, they are associations such as Advertising Standards Canada. Not only do they try and protect young people, but they maintain industry standards and regulate the industry as a whole. We see a very strict rulebook on how we can advertise to kids, as well as using children for advertising purposes. It’s definitely worked, up until recently. However, considering how fast the industry changes, monthly, even daily now, it’s harder for regulators to keep up and protect the industry as they once did.
And then there are the other players…..companies trying to make a pretty penny, consequences be damned. These companies will find any way to advertise to children. For example, there are companies targeting young children (ages 3-7, for example) who use Facebook as a marketing tool, even though Facebook minimum age for use is 13. This connects to this new trend of young people selling their influence, as they’re the ones pimping the product on Instagram, or whatever social media platform being used.
It can get darn right sinister as well. There are cases reported where the children are so young, they don’t even know they’re famous on the internet. The question then becomes how do we protect these children, when it can be argued that they’re being exploited before they even understand what that means. Or, how do we protect them, further down the line, when they’re older, but their entire life has been projected online- aka “sharenting”, without their explicit consent?
So overall, the question above can’t be answered with a simple yes or no. You have to take a look at the players in the game, in each industry. Overall, I would argue no, young people aren’t being protected enough, right now largely because things are moving too fast for people to catch up.
Is the Marketing/ Tech/ Entertainment Industry Doing Enough To Regulate and Protect the young people being influenced by these Influencers... AKA "Their Community?"
It seems all industries are burying their heads in the sand when it comes to the exploitation of children that is taking place online. No one wants to take on the responsibility of policing advertisements, and endorsements targeting children and, as a result, we are leaving children inundated with advertisements disguised as content. Social media platforms such as YouTube, and Instagram claim they hold no responsibility, as children under the age of thirteen are not permitted on their platforms.
Meanwhile, these platforms are littered with channels and accounts operated by children as they have made it far too easy for children to gain access to them by simply lying about their age. Another of YouTube’s indiscretions is their loosely worded policy around their users’ need to notify their subscribers to any commercial relationships connected to their videos. They simply advise users to check advertising regulations in their local jurisdictions, while they once again bury their heads in the sand. Within the broadcast community in Canada, advertisers are forced to abide by The Children’s Code. These policies, as developed by ASC, guide advertisers in preparing commercial messages that recognize the special characteristics of the child audience. According to the guide no host or character on television show can advocate for products as children are unable to distinguish between content and commercials. But isn’t that exactly what influencers are doing? Hiding commercials in content?
Are most influencers up front and transparent about accepting free product and “pay to play”? Does the community ever pushback?
In my experience it's rare to find influencers who are truly up front about sponsored content. One that stands out to me in recent memory is Emily Schuman, a blogger based in the US. She recently shared this post on her blog: http://cupcakesandcashmere.com/series-stories/lets-talk-about-advertising .
From a communications point of view I think it makes sense to be honest about sponsorships and educate your followers. As a follower of her blog I appreciate that she is upfront about which content is sponsored and I think she does a good job of being very selective about which brands to work with. That said, she is hugely successful and I understand that many rising Instagram/YouTube/blogging folks don't have the option to be quite so selective if they want to grow their brand and make more money.
I don't always look at the comments on these posts. But on the ones I have seen, I have noticed people getting angry over sponsored videos. I see a mix - some anger, some people accepting that these people need to make money and sponsored content is a way to do so. Personally, when I see sponsored content, whether in the form of a video or photo, my acceptance of the brand message comes from my knowledge of the influencer. If I have followed them for awhile and they have proved themselves to post great content, with the majority of it not being sponsored, that’s a good start. If they only accept sponsorships related to companies/products that align very well with their brand that they would use/buy even if they weren't getting paid for promoting it, I am much more likely to take an interest in what they're selling.
That said, I can't recall coming across sponsored content on Instagram that made me want to buy something. I am more likely to be influenced by something I see in regular content if it features something I like.
There are influencers on Snapchat who share sponsored content. From what I’ve read, unlike other platforms, where a #sponsored, #sp, or #ad hashtag is used to alert viewers that the content has been paid for, on Snapchat there isn’t space for hashtags, and it is rarely clearly disclosed that what viewers are watching is an ad.