PewDiePie and the Potential Dangers of Social Influencer Marketing for Brands

YouTube star dropped by Maker Studios and YouTube Red project

PewDiePie faces backlash for anti-Semitic videos. YouTube: PewDiePie
Headshot of Sami Main

As YouTube’s biggest star finds himself mired in controversy, brands are getting a wake-up call about the potential perils of social influencer marketing.

After The Wall Street Journal revealed that PewDiePie had posted videos with anti-Semitic messages, Disney and YouTube distanced themselves from digital media’s biggest celebrity.

But some marketers are taking a more cautious approach.

“This doesn’t have to be a red flag for the industry to pump its brakes,” said James Nord, CEO of Fohr Card, an influencer-marketing platform.

“PewDiePie was known for his over-the-top humor, and any brand buying ads against an influencer, or working with them on a campaign, takes a risk of putting themselves into an influencer’s hand,” he said. “It’s like working with The Fat Jew or anyone else who likes to ruffle feathers and get into the news.”

One of the videos PewDiePie posted included a man dressed as Jesus, saying, “Hitler did absolutely nothing wrong.” Another featured two men holding a sign that said, “Death to all Jews.”

“Whether or not you work with [influencers] for paid marketing or happen to advertise on their videos, the standard of vetting should only be getting higher.”
InsightPool CEO Devon Wijesinghe

In a Tumblr post, PewDiePie, whose real name is Felix Kjellberg, explained he “was trying to show how crazy the modern world is, specifically some of the services available online.”

“I make videos for my audience,” he explained. “I think of the content that I create as entertainment, and not a place for any serious political commentary. Though this was not my intention, I understand that these jokes were ultimately offensive.”

While YouTube has removed PewDiePie from the Google Preferred list, brands also have control over where their ads appear across the platform by targeting or excluding various demographics, topics, categories or levels of appropriateness.

But at what point does it become too risky for a brand to partner with a bona fide global influencer like PewDiePie, who has 53 million YouTube subscribers?

“Marketers haven’t quite yet evolved their mindset to remember they’re dealing with humans and emotions, and people who follow influencers because of those feelings,” said Devon Wijesinghe, the CEO of InsightPool, an influencer-marketing platform that also collects real-time data and audience sentiment.

Wijesinghe suggests marketers spend time vetting influencers before placing ads against them or working with them for sponsored content to make sure their values are well aligned. He also recommends that brands monitor influencers after a campaign is over to make sure the messaging doesn’t slip.

“Influencers become inextricably tied to brands that advertise with them,”Wijesinghe said. “Whether or not you work with them for paid marketing or happen to advertise on their videos, the standard of vetting should only be getting higher.”

As Nord explained, there are millions of pieces of content uploaded every day, and very rarely do you hear of an influencer embarrassing a brand. With celebrities, they might appear as a spokesperson for a fragrance one day and end up on the front page of a tabloid for falling down drunk outside a club the next.

“With the rise of influencers somewhat replacing celebrities as representatives for brands, they tend to get into less hot water than they used to,” said Nord.

Even as influencer relationships are proving to be less risky for brands, they still face similar criticism as celebrities. It goes down in comment sections now, rather than in the tabloids.

“Growing your following on social media starts out as a really positive, supportive space,” said Nord. “But there could come a time that people follow you because they hate you. And that can turn nasty.”

Perhaps PewDiePie wasn’t getting the same kind of audience he was when he started his channel. Or, perhaps he wanted to try something new, something beyond the typical video-game commentary he’s known for.

“It’s hard to be that popular and that relevant for a long time,” said Nord. “Every TV show you’ve ever loved turned crappy eventually.”

@samimain Sami Main is social editor for Adweek, where she posts Adweek content onto social platforms and looks for creative ways to communicate what's new.