Dear YouTube Influencers: Sorry, But If You Received Your Gear for Free, Your Video is Sponsored

Dear YouTube Influencers: Sorry, But If You Received Your Gear for Free, Your Video is Sponsored

YouTube influencers can have a huge impact on shaping the buying public’s perception of a certain camera. Content marketing on social media is an opaque and murky world, and just because an influencer says that their content is not sponsored doesn’t mean that they’re not getting paid — especially if the gear they're promoting was given to them for free.

A few days ago, a very popular YouTuber released a video singing the praises of a much-discussed camera, hyperbolically describing it as “the most underrated camera of 2019.” Ignoring for a moment the fact that there’s a fair old chunk of 2019 still to come, it’s worth examining whether this video is genuinely not sponsored, as the influencer was quite keen to claim.

Like many other YouTubers, this influencer was quick to point out that they’ve never been paid a dollar by the manufacturer. However, this particular piece of gear was a gift and coincidentally, a camera from the same brand that was previously presented 2017’s most underrated camera was also sent to them for free.

Effectively, if you’ve received well over $4,000 from a company (and we don't know what lenses they've also been sent) — whether that’s in the form of cash or equipment — you are being paid. The viewing public needs to become a bit more savvy about how this information is being presented: just because someone says that they’re not receiving money to say something nice about a particular piece of gear doesn’t mean that they’re not benefiting from massive kickbacks, especially when the content is not so much a review but a puff piece.

So where do we draw the line? I’m privileged to have been able to keep a couple of items of gear having reviewed them, though nothing anywhere near as lucrative as a camera body. I tried to return my Samyang lenses after the review, but Samyang kindly let me keep them. The WANDRD bag was gifted, possibly because shipping was expensive but mostly because I was intent on giving it a bit of a beating. Clearly this issue is not black and white.

For me, stating that you’re not sponsored when you’re receiving thousands of dollars’ worth of gear year on year is disingenuous. You could argue that YouTubers receive an array of cameras from lots of different manufacturers but only praise the ones that work for them the best. However true that is, is it a defense? Simply because you’re effectively sponsored by lots of different companies doesn’t make you any less sponsored.

As a community, I believe that we need to be more demanding of how influencers sell products to us. Until social media starts enforcing a greater level of transparency, and until there are discernible implications for those accepting payments for content without full and proper disclosure, there needs to be more pressure on influencers to be up front.

To all of those influencers endorsing the products that they’ve received for free: send them back once you’ve tested them. If you love a camera so much, buy it yourself. Then you can tell the world how amazing it is.

As usual, I’d appreciate your thoughts in the comments below.

Lead image is a composite using a photograph by Sharon McCutcheon.

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90 Comments

Daniel Sandvik's picture

90% sure that would be Matti Haapoja.

JetCity Ninja's picture

popular youtubers are generally dishonest/disingenuous, misrepresenting their circumstances regularly to mislead viewers into believing their opinion is not just valuable but unbiased?

no way. that's crazy talk.

just because i've only ever owned Canons, but have never actually paid for one, doesn't mean Canon pays me. i didn't get a check from Canon to make this video. or cash. that means i'm completely unbiased, although Canon is the producer of the most underrated cameras in the history of ever.

this comment is sponsored by squarespace.

JetCity Ninja's picture

even though Canon gave this camera and set of lenses to me as a gift, them giving me free cameras for life doesn't influence my opinion at all. they don't know i'm making this comment and never asked me to. they haven't paid me to make this comment. my opinions are my own.

that said, quit picking on Canon. they're by far the biggest industry underdog with the best cameras ever designed in the history of cameras. Sony is overrated and full of features nobody really needs. and that menu system is terrible.

And don’t forget about absence of native Sony lenses you would never buy anyway.

Most of the influencers I listen to, whenever they do gear review, they usually state precisely how they got the gear, and if they get to keep it. Most of the ones I listen to, either get to use the gear for a very limited time, (at an event, or for a few weeks), or they buy the gear with their own money. [EDIT] Oh, and sometimes they rent it from a popular gear rental service. [/EDIT]

For what its worth, I don't often listen to gear review, as most of them are about gear which I will never buy, such as a new Canon lens which does not fit my non-Canon camera, or a Godox wireless trigger for Nikon cameras which does not work with my non-Godox strobes, much less my non-Nikon camera.

Christian Lainesse's picture

youtube is becoming an infomercial channel

Jeff McCollough's picture

Only 5 payments of $15.95 + shipping and handling.

Kang Lee's picture

I know which video/youtuber/product you are talking about. I don't like the Youtuber, too much B-roll and he says bokah instead of bokeh.

(The product is the EOS R)

But but but but I do agree with his point of view that the EOS R is underrated. I personaly would never buy that for myself because I really need my nipple (AF joystick). But it is still a super camera with amazing AF and amazing colours.

Youtubers/instagrammers bend over backwards to demonstrate how willing they are to play the game in order to get into the club.

You see it all of the time: someone with the means buys a product or two or twenty and gives it positive reviews in order to demonstrate their willingness to be a useful idiot.. err... useful reviewer.

Christian Santiago's picture

Bro just say who it was. It was Matti Haapoja brown nosing the EOS R from Canon.

Fritz Asuro's picture

I think that's not the point of this article. I mean, yes, this could have been written because the writer got triggered by the person you are talking about.

If a youtuber or reviewer is "gifted" equipment they are sponsored in my book.
I don't know why Samyang kindly let you keep the lens but it throws a little shade on credibility.
A reviewer that keeps stuff is a shill for the company. Like when one of the car mags always gave "car of the year" award to the company that bought the most ad pages of the year

Tony Northrup's picture

The video in question - and you should directly link to it - properly discloses that he got the gear for free. I think where this goes wrong is that he REALLY emphasizes that it's "not sponsored by Canon." That seems to imply that it's an unbiased review, which it probably isn't. He accepted ~$4,500 in free gear, and I would bet that he signed some sort of contract with Canon (but I don't know for sure). I can see he's hitting Canon's talking points, like the 480 MBits/s bitrate, which *does not* mean better quality (just less efficient compression). (Note: We use the EOS R for many of the same reasons, but we paid for it ourselves, as we insist on for all cameras and lenses)

Canon has been particularly aggressive about putting their gear into the hands of influencers (on YT and otherwise).

One more point: This article is unfair to single out YouTubers. Magazines have done worse than this for decades. Blogs, influencers, etc, are frequently totally breaking FTC regulations.

I agree with Tony here.

Different youtubers go about things in different ways. Some are super clear where the gear comes from others are a little less and some are flat out full of shit.

My personal take. Most gear I get from Camera companies is short term loaners to review the product and then it's sent back. I also have long term loaners from Nikon, Canon and Sony along with glass so I can use the cameras for other reviews like when a new lens comes out.

In terms of "FREE GEAR". There's actually a lot of companies who send gear without us even asking for it with the expectation that we will "review" it on our channel. This actually has become an issue because they are seeking FREE Marketing for their products. I tend to give something I don't want away to someone who might actually use it.

Like Tony, we work hard to call out when gear is given to us for FREE or if it's a sponsored video. In my videos you know it's sponsored if I flat out say "this video is sponsored by or brought to you by".....

But you won't see a sponsored Real World Review about a new lens or camera ever. Companies do fly us out to places to review gear and we make sure to mention that in the videos. There's also people who will tell you that that's a sponsored video because they paid for the trip, I disagree. It's not a vacation, we don't all sit at the pool not working. In fact I have to take into consideration my employee who's not at the office working but on location with me for days at a time. It actually costs me money to go on these so called Free trips.

None the less I am getting off point. It's a fine line we walk these days but I can personally say, I will not be swayed to review something any different than I normally do, because I got loaner gear or sent on location for a press trip.

Andrew Morse's picture

It's definitely a fine line, but I just wonder where it stops. I'm not going to accuse anyone of purposefully breaking the rule, but if someone receives a camera once 5 years ago, should they continue to suggest that every product by that manufacturer they review be disclosed as an Ad? For instance, in this case the reviewer had that camera 7 months prior - should this still be disclosed as an ad from that amount of time ago? How long is long enough or should there be no timeline? Should reviewers who ever receive a product from a manufacturer have to disclose any review of their products as a sponsored video from then on, forever?

Looking back a bit further, the same reviewer received a Z 6 and called the first video where he received and unboxed the camera a sponsored video, and then released a second video which was a review and called that not sponsored. Is that the right approach? In my opinion, it is really hard to separate out. I've always felt that with any sponsored video there is an exchange of some sort - the recipient of the product (reviewer) is expected to talk about the product in some form, but what are the terms? Do they decide on how many videos and or when they happen? Can Canon or Nikon come back to this reviewer and say "I need you to go over x product again right now" as part of those terms? Should the terms of that exchange between the manufacturer and the reviewer be the business of the viewer? Probably not, I don't think that kind of disclosure is constructive. It's super grey no matter how you cut it up, but I have always felt that as long as the reviewer is saying "I was given this" then that should (hopefully) trigger some awareness in the viewer - it doesn't bother me if they call it sponsored or not as long as they disclose whether or not they have received the product for free.

In trying to set what is and is not acceptable disclosure, it is really easy to over reach and take from the delivery of the video.

Tony Northrup's picture

My understanding is that if you have any affiliation with the company you have to disclose it any time you show or mention their gear. As an extreme example, if you're a "Canikon Artisan" and you make a portrait tutorial where you're using the Canikon RZ50 that you got for free 3 years ago, you *legally need to disclose that* even if you don't mention the camera.

The influence of that scenario is undoubtable. We've never taken free gear or money from camera or lens manufacturers, but SO MANY people saw our tutorials and went out and bought the same camera or the same brand of camera b/c they saw us using. And that's a big part of why camera companies have always made a point of getting their cameras into the hands of prominent photographers for free.

This practice has gone on at least since the 50s and it continues today. I don't know that it's always been illegal, though. The FTC has changed the rules in recent years.

K G's picture

SO MANY people disagree with most of your videos too, the click bait in your face Squarespace adverts that they are.

Yep, product placement. Work as long term advertisement, even after a year. I think in UK product placement must be specifically mentioned. I am not sure whether it's a law in US.

Andrew, that is the problem. Once a reviewer starts getting (keeping) free stuff they are compromised.
While it doesn't need to be stupid over the top fawning reviews it may result in glossing over going easy on flaws. The reviewers want to keep getting free stuff and going on junkets and companies want good friendly reviews. It's a win win.
It's the the wild west out there and there are few people on the oversight committee. It's fun to watch some people, but I take what most say with a big dose of skepticism.

It reminds me of the old Churchill quote "Madam, we've already established what you are. Now we are haggling about the price”.

Andrew Morse's picture

Oh, I don't disagree - there is always going to be risk of some Incentivisation. I think the key distinction I'm trying to make here is determining the difference between "sponsored content" (which I'll call the same thing as an ad) and "financial disclosure". In my mind, they are similar, but different in some important ways. In this video we had disclosure, but not notice of sponsored content (and I'm not sure it would qualify as sponsored content anyway because we have no idea of the terms between the reviewer and Canon).

In this context I'd say "sponsored content" is a direct admission that they were compensated in some way to provide a favourable or structured comment on a product, where "financial disclosure" only admits that they received something, but not that they were knowingly praising it because they were compensated to do so. In Sponsored content, the reviewer is openly stating "my opinion here has been structured to present the product in a specific way", whereas in financial disclosure I think it is up to the viewer to judge the sincerity of the reviewer's findings. If the "influencer" has neither a sponsorship notice nor financial disclosure (when they were indeed compensated somehow), then it is pretty cut and dry - there's a problem in transparency.

If we assume that any support they receive ever constitutes all future comments on that brand as "sponsored content" then most gear reviews would be considered sponsored content. People have commented on YouTubers being flown out to test new gear a few times here. In any instance where I've seen one of those reviews, the reviewer always says "X flew us out to Y" which is financial disclosure, but not calling it Sponsored content. Should that also be considered "sponsored content" or is "financial disclosure" enough? For me, disclosure is enough because if they tell me they were flown somewhere or given a product for free, I bare that in mind in how I receive a review.

If the company sends a reviewer the stuff to review for a week or a month that's fine. If the reviewer keeps it, then they are a part of the problem. Then we get in to the shills as defined by the internet.
A shill, also called a plant or a stooge, is a person who publicly helps or gives credibility to a person or organization without disclosing that they have a close relationship with the person or organization. ... Shills may be employed by salespeople and professional marketing campaigns.

If the company has a big event then usually the reviewer mentions it which good disclosure, but if it is a gooey sloppy wet kiss about how thrilled they are to be invited on the junket then they need to grow up a bit.

If they say , this informational review is sponsored in part by Canikony then I may pay attention..

Andrew Morse's picture

I don't think there's anything wrong with sending products back or keeping them as long as it is properly and clearly disclosed, letting the viewer decide what they think about the relationship between the reviewer and the manufacturer. One could argue that even being sent a loaner camera which must be returned after the review could create biased results too - a smaller reviewer could be enticed to provide a tempered review to ensure they get cameras for reviews in the future - especially if their blog/channel/website/whatever depends on those loaners to undertake reviews. In the same way, flying reviewers out to destinations could be argued as a way to entice favourable reviews even though the reviewer doesn't keep the camera there either (although I'd argue that travel to a destination can be a necessity of getting a camera reviewed quickly following announcement).

In all of these instances, the reviewer has been assisted by the manufacturer or a third party in some way. I would argue that any of these ways to interact with a reviewer may be necessary to get the review done in a reasonable time, and I'm ok with that. What I want to see, as a consumer, is the reviewer disclose the support they received so I can make my own decision on whether or not they're biased. As you said, if the reviewer discloses that they were helped in some way and then delivers "a sloppy wet kiss" over the event, then that makes me think twice about whether it is a credible reaction. If we didn't have the disclosure though, that would be harder for me to discern.

To be clear, I'm not saying no reviewers are unbiased, I'm saying them providing disclosure is what lets the viewer decide if the reviewer is biased. People are always going to get free stuff for reviews - as long as they are up front about how they've been compensated then we can make our own decisions on whether or not we trust the review. Most of the reviewers I've seen provide that disclosure, so I take no issue with their comments.

IMO it's called Payola if you keep the cameras and lenses. But it goes on. IF I was writing reviews I would either get the get the camera from the maker, review it and send it back so they can send it out to the next guy. Or I would buy it and sell it after I review it, or keep it if I need it.

To be honest most of the reviewers are very shallow, talk a lot to get 10+ minutes and don;t say a lot.

cut the crap. you dont state that youre also paid a little something on the side for reviewing things and your hand shake with allens camera. you and northup are the same. you may not say but for a millisecond do I believe that you werent paid on the side for the reviews. you guys get flown to test new gear

dont for a second play it off like you dont get extras to downplay any negativity and give favorable review. everyone has their self interest in mind. trying to play it off like youre for the people nonsense. dude youre there for the money and nothing else. you can buy anything today. maybe you didnt get free lenses or cameras but im surely positive you got good discounts for hooking up with allen.

sheesh what fakes you both are.

Lol, you're ignorant clearly. "you may not say but for a millisecond do I believe that you werent paid on the side for the reviews" . You're kidding right?

You think we get "paid on the side" to secretly by these companies to make reviews. Cool.

My advice to you as build an online business so you are actually in the know about what you don't actually know anything about.

Got burned buying something, huh?

nah, im not stupid enough to listen to reviews from fro and northup.
I always goto lenstip and download the full rez files and assess myself

Getting flown someplace to test new gear just sounds like a pain in the butt. It's work, most industries do it because they have a captive audience and all the techs and equipment on site.
Loaning equip is cool, giving equipment? Not so much.
A friend works for a pub that gets tons of free stuff, at the end of year they they do an online auction of all the crap and donate the proceeds.

K G's picture

Second most irritating "influencer" *shudder* on the planet right here. Not far behind TN

Good point Tony, but how many Youtubers/Bloggers/Influencers/Carnival Barkers are just a guy or gal out there on their own, a small company without any oversight from the "guys in legal".

When a company gives a youtuber like the guy in question $4500 in gear, at the end of the year is that declared as income or is it a gift like he got it from his sister?

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