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

"Fstoppers vs Youtube Influezers, The Truth"

I think you articles like these underestimate the viewers. I have watched the video in question, and I follow several others in the same category. I watch these channels mostly because they produce good looking content that I can learn from, and it is entertaining to watch. When they front gear I can see past all the «sponsored» «not sponsored» stuff and exctract what I find useful. I’m pretty sure the others who watch these channels do this as well. And it’s not like you’ll take one influencer’s word, most of us research gear in many different sources before we pull out our credit card anyway.

Tony Northrup's picture

The companies analyze their metrics very carefully and wouldn't give their gear away if it wasn't profitable... but yes, it's critical that consumers be educated, and that's why I'm glad to see articles like this.

Valid point Tony! 😀

dale clark's picture

85% of youtube videos are terrible. I'm quite ADD. If I see something I think is interesting and they have an intro that is over a few seconds, I tune out. Get to the point quickly. I do not need to see you Unbox (who the F**8 watches these unboxing videos?), or go into photography 101. The Northrups actually do a great job with this. The Northrups keep my attention and do not waste time with "filler".

Jeff McCollough's picture

While I don't like their videos I do agree that most photography videos on YT are just rubbish. There are a few good channels out there but I could count them on two hands...and maybe a foot.

Patrick Hall's picture

Unbox Therapy, one of the largest youtube tech channels...is all unboxing!

Motti Bembaron's picture

Darn right! I have been saying it for months. Unfortunately, in our industry, it's not at all clear. Dozens of "tutorials" are sponsored and push certain gear.

David Pavlich's picture

There's four or five YT photo people that I truly enjoy and keep it at those few. And, I'm the first to admit that I like a couple of them just because they're fun to listen to along with the information provided. Most of us have the ability to sort through the data to come up with our own conclusions, much of which is influenced more by budget than anything else.

At any rate, a little common sense goes a LONG way in digesting this stuff.

The reality is most of the people watching these YouTubers are high school kids who don't know the difference between an ad and entertainment. Yes, Matti is pretty shady when it comes to sponsored posts. If we want to stop this behavior... stop posting about him on fstoppers, and people don't subscribe or even promote this kind of garbage that they do.

the reality is these guys will do anything for a buck, canon, one wheel, epidemic sound, lenses, clothing, whatever they can get, They are not interested in helping you learn, they are interested making money off of you. Being purposely vague about the affiliation with Canon is still being shady.

Patrick Hall's picture

This is one reason I really love the relationship we have with BH Photo. We can literally get any product we want, test it out, review it, and say whatever we want about it. I'd say most of our gear reviews, maybe 80% are done this way. Sometimes we add quick sponsors in a read out that is a different company than the product we are using or reviewing so even though it's sponsored, it wouldn't produce a biased review because the two products are unrelated.

From the US Federal Trade Commission website, “After reviewing numerous Instagram posts by celebrities, athletes, and other influencers, Federal Trade Commission staff recently sent out more than 90 letters reminding influencers and marketers that influencers should *CLEARLY* and *CONSPICUOUSLY* disclose their relationships to brands when promoting or endorsing products through social media.” Source: https://www.ftc.gov/news-events/press-releases/2017/04/ftc-staff-reminds...

Michael Kuszla's picture

This kind of system is far to be new.
When I worked in the snowboard and surf industry, we had a lot of sponsored people (mainly snowboarders ans surfers), but also what we called "ambassadors" (now called "influencers").

The only difference, is that sponsorized people are under contract. But brands need ambassadors, of influencers, or blablablaers, because in terms of prehistoric marketing (yep, it didn't evolves so much), we need heroes (the sponsored one with a contract) to be inspired, but also people like you and I who are more accessible.
Brands always have notorious heroes, and versatiles ambassadors.

The first make the brand image.
The second are the joint between market trends and public.

So yeah. With, or without contract, making something in exchange of direct money or indirect money (like gear, or rooms, or plane ticket...) is A JOB. But as this is gear, this is costless for brand, and indolore for influencer as you're not subject to government taxes (in general).

In any case, are influencers (i don't like this biased term) totally dishonest? Well I don't think so, most of them are passionated. That's why you follow them!

But what I have learn and teach in 10y in the snowboard/surf industry is to try the product before listening someone.
(or to follow your conviction). That's why I've rent a Nikon z6-z7 for a week.

Lee Christiansen's picture

I think when we trust reviews, we have to learn who to trust. I worry less about whether someone has been given the product to keep and worry more about the credibility of the reviewer.

I was sent a speed light by a company to review. I was told I could keep it. My review was middling at best, (gave it 3/5 rating), and I was sure to highlight the downfalls, (many), as well as the pros, (not so much except price).

Come to think of it, I don't think I actually mentioned I was keeping the speed light. I'm guessing no one cared because I didn't give it a rave review. (The supplier even called me and asked if I could give it a 5 star review which I declined). But if I'd given it a rave review, it would not have been because I was keeping it.

Granted, not all reviewers are as unbiased. But many will tell it like it is, whether or not they are sponsored. Let's face it, most products aren't all bad, so it is possible to like something and highlight flaws in the design.

Alas YouTube is full of soooo many irksome people with no integrity or knowledge. Slap an iPhone on a stand and sit at a desk with an annoyingly large microphone, screaming "Whatsup" at the start - hey you're a Youtube reviewer...!

We need to be more discerning methinks.

Lee Christiansen's picture

Just watched Matti's review of the Canon EOS R. In fairness he does give a big disclaimer.

BUT, it did make me wonder, are YouTube "presenters" incapable of speaking whole sentences without the need for an edit every 3 seconds. It is becoming hilarious nowadays with so many jump cuts to form a single line. Is there a modern generation that can't form a single thought without having to hack it up before they make sense? :)

Matti - learn to speak in whole sentences. Or buy an Autocue. Or learn some lines. Or speak like a normal person. Go on, you know you want to... :)

Yep, noticed that some of them do more than others. Maybe they are new or lazy to restart the entire sentence.

Maybe you should try it yourself and see how you go without doing any jump cuts and keeping it entertaining. It's not as easy as it looks. Also most youtubers don't work off of scripts ( that's more of a TV thing where they have a budget for multiple writers, people to set up a teleprompter and other people who's sole jobs is to come up with ideas for your next shows. Youtubers generally have to do all of these jobs themselves ) and its free flow and real. But at the same time as a video editor you only want to keep the meat and cut the fat so to speak so that the video is easier to watch and doesn't drag.

Alex Yakimov's picture

Is there such thing as an unbiased review? We do not live in a vacuum, so it is natural that "influencers" are getting influenced directly or indirectly and either admit that or don't. Life is about learning. Sometimes about gear, sometimes about sources and sometimes about learning itself. Stay hungry. Stay foolish. Keep moving.

David Schöppe's picture

I tought exactly the same when I watched this 100% Canon biased Video in 2017 and 2019.

But I have mixed feelings,
in fact here in germany it would not be paid advertising if you get a product and can tell whatever you want about it.
Just if you get money for making a positive Video of someone tells you what to say, that would be paid advertisment.

I run a german YouTube Channel and everytime I get something send for free I let my viewers know it.
Matti did this to, but he just did it to falsy make a point in not being paid.

Sure you are paid because payment doesn't mean Money. I have to get every little more expensive Item I got send for free into my Tax report and file an invoice for it because its payment.

Someone gives something to you in exchange for something (a video review or mentioning).

I think YouTube needs clear rules for this when people don't make clear statements by themself.

I think this story is timely responds and Fstoppers shuld make an effort to make clear lines editorial.

Larry Wynkoop's picture

As a small-fry YouTuber myself, I sometimes think about how I would handle this if I ever get big enough to be noticed, lol.

As a consumer / viewer, I watch the big time channels for the entertainment and production value, and because I occasionally learn something from them. If I want honest opinions on gear, I look for the small, non-monetized channels. I watch a bunch of them, and read a lot of online reviews and try to determine the overall consensus.

It pisses me off that Peter McKinnon and Matti Hapooja are two of the most popular camera reviewers on YT yet two of the most guilty of non-disclosure. And when you call them out on this they will completely ignore you. I refuse to watch any of their content and I guide others away from them where I can.

The trouble is they've both figured out a winning YT formula that sucks everyone into drooling over each and every video of theirs that they could literally say anything about any camera and their drunk followers would take it as 100% gospel.

What a way to go about your life - deceiving and misleading others for monetary gain. I really hope one day they can look within themselves and realise this.

Thankfully we have people here like Patrick and Lee whom in my experience are completely honest and upfront with their disclosure. It's refreshing to say the least.

Patrick Hall's picture

Thanks for the kind words.

We always attempt to be honest about this (I say attempt because we still fail to say the correct stuff in our critique the community series and we’ve been doing the same thing there for years, sometimes you just forget).

It’s such a slippery slope that we consider and talk about internally every couple of months.

The one thing that I never want to happen to me is to be tied up and completely dependent on the money from advertisers. Nothing makes me happier than speaking 100% truth and even making funny videos showing the downfalls of some popular companies. A great case of this was the Lee and Pye shootout video. We personally own that Sony A7r camera, and we do create sponsored ads for Sony time to time, but I absolutely loath their menu system (and memory card filing system). I love making jokes about it because it’s true and it’s how I honestly feel.

We are also big Nikon fans but Nikon was pissed about our Df hipster review. It was honest, funny, and one of my favorite videos we’ve ever made. And I LOVE Nikon. But I never want to be given a fat check and told I can’t produce content like that again (and we’ve been offered that deal, check wasn’t big enough haha).

And this is where the power of creating paid tutorials come in. The same people who complain about our reviews and YouTube content also complain about us promoting our photography tutorials. But, the truth is, everything in the Fstoppers Store is what actually gives us the financial security to NOT depend on advertiser’s money and let’s us be profitable without having to sell out every time we want to make original free content. There are lots of other photo sites, a few even bigger than us, who live and die by sponsored posts and affiliate links alone, and I’ve never aspired to be locked into that system entirely.

There are soooo many interesting stories I’m happy to tell people in person about shitty products that are epic fails yet we know the marketing campaigns that went on behind them and how a ton of other blogs gave them raving reviews. It’s sad when you know a product isn’t that great yet you’ve seen a reviewer’s five star review video/article and they admit it was a pile of steaming shit. That hurts my soul.

Luckily, and I’ll end with this, most of the cameras and lenses we review really are amazing through and through. Yes sometimes they might be missing features we want and the price might be a little high, but when I compare almost any camera or lens released today to what I was forced to use 14 years ago when I just got started, it all blows away the same standard for excellence I had back then. It’s hard to get pissy about a D850 whose wireless app is absolute garbage when the camera can do more than what most photographers can ever need it to while still being compariable in price to the D700 of 12 years ago.

Mokhtar Chahine's picture

Would be also great tl Shed light on “I bought this from my own money” but never mentioned there is a solid return policy.

I think much of this discussion is going in the wrong direction. Worrying about legalistics and disclosure really makes little sense in a world where any 14 year old can open an account and prattle on about his preferences

A little caveat emptor is necessary. Why the heck would ANYONE believe some person just because they are on youtube and claim to be an expert? If you follow someone for a while and find that the recommendations conform to your own experience, then a little bit of subjective faith may be justified. But taking the word of an 'influencer' is pure foolishness. If you make a poor choice based on an influencer, you're the one at fault,

There are quite a few accredited sources for info (pro magazines, testing labs etc) that you can use as a guide.

Just watched the offending video,…

…And was offended.

«Why I stuck with this camera over all of the other cameras…. …This whole time….» 0:43
It has been only NINE MONTHS TOPS!

«I have, to this day, never ever gotten paid, at all, zero dollars, from Canon….» 1:02
Sounds like he is making it clear that he never got paid, AT ALL. That sounds like a denial of ever having received valuable considerations. Clearly, he has. He is either ignorant of what constitutes valuable consideration, or is deliberately deceiving his audience.

«Not sponsored by Canon in any way….» 1:22
Getting gear for free, getting a MUA for free, getting catering for free, getting use of a studio for free, getting a bottle of Gatorade for free… it is all sponsorship. Many charities get sponsored by being given a product to give away as a door prize. Even if you do not keep the product, you were still sponsored, as the product was use to draw an audience.

«In 2017 I made a video about the most underrated camera of 2017 …the Canon 6D mk II….» 2:11
The other camera which he admits he got for free, (although he previously pretended to not quite remember for sure).

Took five minutes to get to the story. The first bit is to convince you that you are not being brainwashed, (and to sell presets).

I do not think he understands what Log is, (be it C-Log, S-Log, or otherwise), he does not really understand bit-rate, (although he did not do too a bad job of explaining it), and he certainly does not understand resolution, as their is no point in filming in FHD, editing in FHD, then uploading in 4k.

He does not seem to understand why certain cameras have a crop in video, (but most reviewers who mention video crop also do not seem to understand).

He does not understand what a speed-booster is, nor for what it is used. It is a converter. That is all.

In addition, most of the reasons are for video, and quite subjective. If the EOS R was being marketed as a cine camera, that would be okay, but it is being marketed as a DSC, which was not covered much.

Watched some of his other videos, and his lack of knowledge on the science behind the art boggles the mind.

That being said, I am glad for the Karl's, Jared's, Joe's, Thomas', and Tony's out there.

I agree on all points. Karl Taylor (I'm assuming you mean him) I have a lot of respect for - probably the most out of any I watch. His knowledge and experience are unmatched for online based photography education from which I've seen. There is no BS from him and he is not trying to be an "influencer".

K G's picture

You could draw the line at calling these shill vloggers "influencers" for one. Influence my rear end, whoever came up with this term for these know nothing bedroom reviewers was obviously one themselves.

I see a lot of articles on this website that talk down on Youtubers and Instagram based photographers and the majority of them reek of jealousy. Especially this article. The author even mentions that he has done reviews on youtube himself and was excited when he was aloud to keep some lenses that he reviewed, yet has the nerve to say another youtuber should send back products he reviews and then buy them with his own hard earned money when clearly he wouldn't do the same. I don't think many people would voluntarily spend thousands of dollars that they didn't have to if they could get a product for free.

I'm actually a youtuber myself, I used to have my own film company that did very well but the reality is youtube was paying a lot better and I enjoyed the freedom it gave me as a film maker so I packed up my film company and went full time on youtube and I've never looked back. To be honest its actually been more work than I had ever imagined and more intense at times than my old traditional film job. I can't be bothered saying who I am because of all the negativity in this forum, but lets just say I know what I'm talking about in this space.

If a youtuber mentions that he has been gifted a product from a company, then you have no right to whinge about it any further and Matti clearly stated that Canon give him free stuff. He was completely transparent about that so if you don't trust him anymore because of that, simply stop watching the video.

The reality is though, while getting a free camera and lenses is pretty fucking amazing, you have to look at how much money the camera company makes out of that advertising if the youtuber, like Matti has a big audience. Realistically if he did this video as a "Brand deal" he would have leverage to charge a hell of a lot more than a free camera body and some lenses. Also if he gives a shit review, one that seems like it isn't genuine that can cost them A LOT of money in the future due to the loss of viewership and audience trust so it's definitely not something somebody with the size of audience Matti has or the amount of money he would make from his channel is going to do just for a free camera. And if you really think it is, then you have no clue what so ever.

I'm not going to go into brand specifics but I've been given quite a few free camera bodies, lenses and other various camera gear and if its not "sponsored" with a budget behind it, I always tell the company that A. I get to keep the items no matter what and B. I get to say my true uncensored opinions on the product. A lot of the time companies will ask to see a preview of the video before it goes live and unless its a "paid video" I will never give them that because I don't want any changes being requested. And I have given bad reviews of products I've been gifted if I didn't like them and those same companies have still sent me more products because they appreciated my honest feedback because I've given other products of theirs good reviews too.

Now if I do a sponsored video where the camera company or brand in general has a budget, I will first and foremost make it very clear that its a sponsored video so the viewer can take it as a grain of salt. I also never do sponsored "review" videos. Instead I will do videos where I test the product out and shoot a creative video with it so that the viewers can see the products full potential and it keeps the brand happy having a hero video as well.

now the last thing I want to say is, I actually started using the Canon 6d MK II after watching an old video of Mattis where he mentioned that camera was the most under rated camera. I thought it was a shit camera with shit specs and was currently creating youtube videos on the GH5. Because of Matti I gave the 6d a go an while it still has shit specs I ended up finding it to be the best every day youtube/vlogging camera around and I stuck with it and still use it to this day. So I trust his opinion and if you don't, just don't watch his videos.

So maybe get over your jealousy and stop trying to poke holes in somebody else work just because they are doing what you would clearly love to do if you could and instead start trying to figure out how you can succeed and get into the same space.

rant over!