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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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Previous comments
Tony Northrup's picture

If he's in the US he has to declare the value of the gear as income and pay taxes on that value.

Andrew Morse's picture

This guy is in Canada I believe

Motti Bembaron's picture

Similar in Canada. He has to declare it as equipment received. Even trading services (I will second photograph for you if you do the same for me) has to be declared as far as I know.

Xander Cesari's picture

Do you think the issue is a lack of awareness of the FTC regulations? Or do people know the requirements but just think their channel is so small that it's not a big deal?

Tony Northrup's picture

Ignorance isn't any excuse, but yeah, some people aren't aware. Others, we know for a fact, are aware of FTC regulations and knowingly break them.

Motti Bembaron's picture

In my opinion, it's not ignorance at all. Those guys know exactly what they are doing. I will not be surprised if the company that gives the equipment t actually asks them not to mention it. Looks more organic in hopes influenced people will follow and buy it.

Andrew Morse's picture

Maybe relevant but maybe not, this YouTuber isn't in the US, so they may not be regulated by the FTC but rather the Canadian equivalent. I'm not sure how FTC restrictions work on media consumed in the US but created elsewhere - maybe still the same? Regardless, Canada has similar requirements to the FTC for disclosure.

Tony Northrup's picture

Well I don't think the video in question breaks any laws - he's explicit in his disclosure. But, according to the FTC, if there's any possibility the video will be *viewed* in the US, those laws apply. Many prominent non-US YouTubers have run into problems with the US FTC in the past because of it, and the FTC will directly take action against the US branch of the manufacturer.

Motti Bembaron's picture

This is a very clear law in Europe, you have to declare any affiliation or how you received the equipment you are reviewing or if you are getting paid for doing it. However, let's face it, those tules are hard to reinforce.

Mike Ditz's picture

So he says Canon gave me $4500 worth of gear to keep, now here is my unbiased review?

Jon Judson's picture

"...he's explicit in his disclosure."

Well... yes and no. He makes a few verbal backflips when stating that he's not being paid by Canon, but yet was given the camera for free. That's certainly a pretty good payment. He makes that backflip quite repeatedly and forcefully in his "disclosure".

An intelligent person can see through that, of course, but he's still not sticking the landing.

Rhonald Rose's picture

Well, if you buy/recieve a device outside Canada, you are suppose to declare it with the customs, pay the money (gst + customs) before taking it out of airport.

When it comes to income tax for individuals,

There is no law for "gift", but under CRA regulations, near-cash gifts — such as gift cards, things that have cash value — are considered cash

If he received gift from Canon through his registered small business, there is no clear law that I could find. He may not have to pay income tax in this case (using company property for an assignment). Maybe tax accountants here could solve that puzzle.

LA M's picture

Agree with this...

It is a very fine line and magazines etc have been culprits for awhile. YT being a relatively new format is starting to show the cracks with this sort of thing.

super steel_'s picture

"starting to show the cracks"

no, its just that people are too slow to realize its happening now for years.

anyone who gets sent a product by a company, you dont know exactly what the agreement was. how much they were payed, what they were offered or if they kept the product.

theyre all fakes. of the few reviewers I consider somewhat legit is lenstip in poland.
but no one does reviews without wanting some kind of extras coming their way.

Motti Bembaron's picture

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

Canon and Profoto...

Andy Day's picture

Thanks Tony, and thanks jared polin for also contributing. Your feedback is valuable, and I noted your points that it's not just YouTubers. I think it's fair to also put Fstoppers under scrutiny and there's certainly scope for further discussion regarding websites and magazines. Ultimately, the more transparency, the better. I'm relatively new to this game so I'm keen to keep discussions going.

If anyone ever wants to speak on or off the record about the practices that take place in this industry, feel free to reach out. I'm easy to find.

Andy Day's picture

I should add: this is not a black and white issue which is why I wanted to draw attention to the fact that I've also received free stuff. However - and I acknowledge here that reviews can be influenced by the fact that gear is gifted - I hope that readers can appreciate that there's a difference between a 2000-word review and a 10-minute 'this piece of gear is great' video.

Andrew Morse's picture

Definitely not black and white, but I do question whether in this particular case this video would constitute misleading the viewer. I think you're right that the YouTuber does sway into grey area by saying it is not a sponsored video and that they received no money, but they do disclose that they were given the camera for free. That was definitely picked up on in the comments, so I do think there was disclosure. Without the disclosure of him receiving the camera, I'd have a problem with the video, certainly. Also, I believe he received a full Z 6 video kit a month or so ago and did a non-review immediately following receiving (considered sponsored), and a full review after (considered not sponsored). I'm not sure that the distinction between one video being sponsored and the other not is any different than the video in question regarding the EOS R.

The crux of the matter is defining the difference between "sponsored content" and "compensation disclosure". In this case we have disclosure, but not definition as sponsored content or tagging the video as an ad. I can't speak to the FTC rules as to whether or not this is acceptable, but for me I'm content as long as they disclose what they received for free, be it travel, equipment, or whatever. If a video is considered "sponsored" I would assume money/goods/services changed hands for delivery of a specific statement/outcome/sentiment (i.e. how most squarespace sponsored videos have a near-identical line about squarespace). So I think unless Canon asked him to "say good things about the EOS R now" (or something to that effect) then I don't think this needs to be tagged as sponsored provided that the disclosure is included.

Bjarne Solvik's picture

I think the example video is the worst ever. Not only for that particular video, but two more. Five underrated and five overratet camera functions. Just look those three and then tell me it's not all about Canon R.

Truth is product placement and sponsoring by gifts or whatever, is overtaking and it starts to look like Hollywood/American TV.

I would better look Canon commercials then this behind the back something. Actually I have enjoyed to look Fujifilm commercials where you meet different photographers and see them work. But when you mix and it's hard to tell are you just telling a brands story, that underrating people's intelligence.

Rhonald Rose's picture

True, influencers are not specific to youtube or Insta. Magazines have been doing it all the time. Sales & Marketing people do that too (you can see the showroom guy pushing you towards one product by commenting on the greatness of the product because the numbers guys told him to get rid of it) and they also influence purchasing of an individual.

We all are biased and there is nothing called unbiased.

00rob00 Rob00Rob's picture

You're one of the culprits along with the Angry Photographer, Fro, are you guys even photographers or just personalities?

jared polin's picture

Keep in mind FStoppers reporters get "free" gear also. It's not just YouTubers.

Simon Patterson's picture

Every time I see a headline that starts with "FStoppers reviews the ...", I translate it into "Somebody at FStoppers got a free ...".

I have largely stopped clicking on such articles.

Patrick Hall's picture

I mean, a ton of reviews I have done in the last 3 years have been loaner gear I've gotten through BH Photo. I feel like this is the best situation because, yes BH wants a good review because they want to sell more gear, but it also lets me be honest about the gear I review because it's BH and not the manufacturer directly. We've def called out a few companies for making absolutely garbage products but truth be told, most of the stuff coming out today is better than anything I initially bought when making the jump to full time photographer and I've thoroughly enjoyed most of the products.

Until you can really sit down with 2-4 products that compete with each other, it's very hard for me at least to determine if it's a good deal or better made product. Truth is, they are all almost always pretty good products and the price is the only thing people bicker about.

Simon Patterson's picture

I reckon it would be well worth you ensuring that all Fstopper review articles start with an explanation of how the gear was obtained. The most trustworthy Youtubers such as the Northrups and Matt Granger do this.

David Pavlich's picture

Yep! Matt and T&C are my favorites.

Patrick Hall's picture

Lee and I always try to mention it. We usually say this video is sponsored or we say when a company has sent us gear to review. If we don’t, that means it was sent by BH and something we personally were interested in trying out (or we flat out own the item already).

As you can prob tell from our channel, we focus more on being entertaining and doing real world type shoots typically so we don’t always dive into all the super geeky tech talk and side by side comparisons that many other youtubers do (we like having our own voice for this reason).

For me the tricky one comes down to software like Alien Skins. Yes they have been sponsoring some videos lately, and yes the offer to give us free software, but, I’ve personally bought my own copy(s) for years and have been a big fan of theirs before we even started Fstoppers. So yes they are sponsors once a month and yes technically we have a free software key somewhere in an email, but every time you see me or Lee using Alien Skin, it’s our personal copy and a product we have both used in our workflow for 14+ years.

Simon Patterson's picture

I really enjoy your videos and agree that you personally are usually pretty good at clarifying how you obtained the stuff you review.

The written reviews on your site, however, have traditionally left a lot to be desired in that regard. With a lot of dodgy operators on the net, I think your contributers should all be fully up-front in their review articles about how the gear is obtained, whether they think it is a "sponsored" post or not.

Otherwise you firmly place your site alongside the other dodgy online operators.

Jonas Karlsson's picture

Influencer is not a hobby, its a job title. If youre not getting paid, youre not an influencer. Its all about keeping this in mind when consuming their content.

dale clark's picture

Wasn't one of the daughters who's parents got caught up in the college scandal a full time "influencer"?

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