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.