27-year-old Swede Felix Kjellberg, who goes by the name PewDiePie on YouTube, has found himself at the center of a firestorm.
The Wall Street Journal exposed the fact that digital celebrity, who runs the most-subscribed channel on YouTube, had published a number of videos that contained anti-Semetic themes Kjellberg claims were intended as jokes.
Following an inquiry by The Wall Street Journal about its knowledge of Kjellberg’s offensive videos, Disney announced that it has severed ties with Kjellberg, not an insignificant decision given that the YouTube star’s business affairs are run by Maker Studios, a new media company that the entertainment giant purchased in 2014 for more than half a billion dollars.
“Although Felix has created a following by being provocative and irreverent, he clearly went too far in this case and the resulting videos are inappropriate,” a spokesperson for Maker Studios stated.
According to The Wall Street Journal, Kjellberg’s agreement with Disney’s Maker Studios gave the digital celebrity “editorial independence.” Many digital celebrities and influencers insist that they retain full control over the content they create and publish, in part because such control is vital to them maintaining their authenticity with their fans. To ensure that they can play ball, many brands have largely given in to these demands.
But in Kjellberg’s case, editorial independence appears to have allowed the YouTube star to post content that was stunningly offensive.
Interestingly, while Kjellberg stands to lose millions of dollars, if not his career, as a result of his baffling decisions, his troubles could hurt others more than they hurt Kjellberg. The Swede, who rose to fame posting video game reviews, is arguably YouTube’s most important star. With more than 50 million subscribers and estimated annual earnings of more than $15 million, he’s YouTube’s most popular homegrown act and biggest earner.
But his poor judgment (to put it kindly) was too much for YouTube to ignore. Following Disney’s severing of ties with Kjellberg, YouTube announced that it has removed him from the Google Preferred advertising program and cancelled the second season of Kjellberg’s original YouTube series, Scare PewDiePie.
That original series has featured prominently in YouTube’s promotion of Red, its paid subscription service, causing some, like TechCrunch’s Josh Constine, to suggest that the situation spells “big trouble for YouTube Red.”
The impact of the PewDiePie controversy could extend well beyond the companies that Kjellberg has relationships with. In fact, it could be a blow to the entire influencer marketing space.
In an effort to cut through the social clutter, many brands have turned to personalities like Kjellberg to promote their products and services in recent years. But Disney and YouTube’s decision to cut ties with Kjellberg is a reminder that when brands align themselves with digital celebrities, they face many of the same reputational risks they do when they align themselves with traditional celebrities.
Obviously, the woes of one of the internet’s biggest influencers, however well-publicized, aren’t going to put an end to influencer marketing, but they certainly aren’t a positive development and the situation is a good reminder that brands who are inking deals with influencers can’t realistically treat these relationships as hands-off investments that can largely be ignored.