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Navigating YouTube’s Endless Controversies, From James Charles to Dramageddon

Beauty brands rely on Youtube to connect with younger customers. But as the recent feud between mega-influencers James Charles and Tati Westbrook shows, the social media platform can be a risky place to do business.
James Charles at the Met Gala | Source: Getty Images
By
  • Cheryl Wischhover
BoF PROFESSIONAL

NEW YORK, United States — Last week, beauty influencer James Charles was "cancelled," his social media accounts bleeding millions of followers and a world tour in doubt. This week he's back.

Welcome to the world of beauty YouTube, the immensely popular platform that has overtaken television as the entertainment medium of choice for Gen Z, playing an outsized role in the marketing budgets at young-skewing cosmetics brands like Colourpop and Morphe. To their customers, YouTube celebrities like Charles play the same role that movie stars did for their parents.

The stakes have never been higher for both influencers and the brands who hire them to tout their products. Neither have the risks. YouTube has also become a breeding ground for controversy, with influencers running into trouble for everything from racist remarks to promoting faulty products. There are popular channels devoted to chronicling who’s sparring with whom, though such disputes rarely penetrate beyond the YouTube bubble.

“It’s like a live reality show on social these days,” said Jordynn Wynn, the marketing director for Colourpop, a makeup brand that has done more than 30 collaborations with influencers since it launched in 2013.

Brands risk becoming collateral damage in these feuds, as Charles’ bad week demonstrated.

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It's like a live reality show on social these days

On May 10, Tati Westbrook, herself a prominent beauty vlogger, detailed in a 43-minute video a litany of bad deeds allegedly committed by Charles, including endorsing a rival’s vitamin gummies. The video was viewed more than 50 million times. Over the next five days, Charles, 19, lost three million of his 16.5 million YouTube subscribers.

This fight had the potential to derail a promising career that had carried Charles into the upper echelon of beauty influencers, including an endorsement deal with Covergirl in 2016 and a Morphe eyeshadow palette that sold out multiple times and is now carried at Ulta Beauty stores. The dispute also broke out of the YouTube bubble, receiving coverage by the New York Times, Washington Post and cable news, reaching millions of people who had never heard of Charles or knew about his affiliation with Covergirl.

Charles and Westbrook did not respond to requests for comment. Morphe, which is majority-owned by Elevate Brandpartners, did not respond to requests for comment. Ulta declined to comment for this story. Covergirl, which has not formally worked with Charles since 2017, declined to comment.

The Charles-Westbrook feud appears to have blown over (Westbrook took down her initial video on May 18, and Charles has recovered about half his lost followers). But the affair exposed the potential risky side of working with popular YouTubers who have a passionate and engaged fanbase.

Here’s how to avoid becoming collateral damage in the next YouTube influencer war.

Why YouTube is a drama magnet

YouTube is a crucial platform for beauty influencers in a way it is not for those in fashion. Creators often post their makeup looks on Instagram, but the process of applying products is important to viewers, who turn to videos for in-depth tutorials and product reviews. Fans get to know the personalities of the creators and become enmeshed in certain creator communities.

The format is lucrative for influencers, who collect 55 percent of revenue generated by ads interspersed in their videos. An ad can pay anywhere from 25 cents to $4 per 1,000 views, according to a representative for Social Blade, a platform that tracks social media analytics (the company’s site crashed during the Charles/Westbrook drama because so many people were watching their live subscriber counts).

These are big personalities who have now become quite famous. There's this echo chamber on the internet that helps amplify it and stir things up.

Brands need to get to know not just the influencer they choose to work with, but also his or her network. Charles and Westbrook operate independently, with their own endorsements and product lines, but shared a long history of personal ties. Westbrook said she mentored Charles early in his career. They’ve appeared together in multiple videos and he did her wedding makeup. Then, at Coachella in April, Charles did a sponsored Instagram Story ad promoting SugarBearHair supplements, a competitor to Westbrook’s own Halo Beauty line. Westbrook accused him of lying about it and being “easily bought,” and the feud was on.

The ad revenue raises the stakes. But it also creates an incentive to make peace before brands shift their marketing budgets to less-controversial media.

Both Charles and Westbrook said publicly that they were working with intermediaries from the platform to end their dispute. YouTube declined to comment.

Influencers have been sparking controversies since the dawn of social media. What’s changed is that many of them have built profiles big enough to draw attention outside their chosen platforms.

“It has less to do with an increase in [influencer] moral missteps and more to do with increased scrutiny on everything that people are posting and have ever posted on the internet,” said James Nord, the founder and CEO of influencer marketing platform Fohr. “These are big personalities who have now become quite famous. There’s this echo chamber on the internet that helps amplify it and stir things up.”

Test the waters

An influencer should be vetted like any other employee, starting with combing the person’s social media and doing a thorough search for anything questionable in their history. Due diligence is a must when a single sponsored YouTube video by an influencer with a half million subscribers could fetch at least $50,000 and well above that, according to Nord.

“You’re handing your brand over to an individual and I think it is negligent for a brand to do that without knowing who that person is,” Nord said, noting that he’s seen brands make influencer deals via agents without ever meeting the influencer.

You're handing your brand over to an individual and I think it is negligent for a brand to do that without knowing who that person is.

Wynn says Colourpop has a “romancing period” with potential collaborators. The brand will start working with an influencer by giving them affiliate codes or doing small video projects. It’s important for getting to know an influencer and also for showing the audience that the relationship with Colourpop is genuine and not merely transactional. “The courting period is almost just as important as the actual launch day,” said Wynn.

Charles’ brand partners likely knew what they were getting into. In 2017, while still a Covergirl ambassador, he tweeted a flippant comment about being afraid of Ebola in Africa. He was roundly condemned and issued an apology. Covergirl also issued a statement at the time, saying in part, “We agree his statements were inappropriate but appreciate that he has issued an apology.” Covergirl declined to comment for this story.

In the last few years, a previously tiny network of self-appointed, often anonymous, watchdog beauty drama channels have exploded on YouTube. Dozens of accounts search for influencer bad behaviour — “tea” — to dissect. For every apology video an influencer uploads, several drama channels like TeaSpill and Here For the Tea will respond within hours to analyze them.

These channels helped expose racist tweets and bad behaviour on the part of several popular beauty influencers last summer, a time also known on YouTube as “Dramageddon.” One beauty YouTuber, Laura Lee, lost subscribers and a distribution deal with Ulta for her eponymous beauty brand over old tweets. Drama channels often monetize their videos, and the larger ones even sell their own merch.

Get expectations in writing

DBA and Fohr both add morality clauses into contracts. “So if [influencers] do anything to make us look bad we are allowed to pull out of that contract, no kill fee or anything,” said Nord.

Marlena Stell learned this the hard way. She started doing beauty YouTube tutorials in 2008 and in 2011 launched her brand, Makeup Geek, which is currently carried at Target and sold directly online. She lost customers when an influencer Makeup Geek collaborated with became involved with friends that were known in the community for being controversial.

Now if we do any collaborations, we have a clause that says if you're going to cause drama publicly we can cut ties with you, because that affects us.

“We literally had thousands of customers emailing asking why we were working with [that person] and that they were going to stop buying Makeup Geek,” said Stell. “Now if we do any collaborations, we have a clause that says if you’re going to cause drama publicly we can cut ties with you, because that affects us.”

As Westbrook herself said in her latest message to fans, “I hope that our community is somehow strengthened from all of this madness and that we will all strive to hold ourselves and each other to a higher standard.”

When drama strikes, don’t panic

Nord doesn’t think that the Charles-Westbrook YouTube drama is as “incendiary” as some he’s seen, which could explain why Morphe and Ulta have remained silent. (The winning company in all of this might be SugarBearHair, which has earned itself countless free media mentions and a surge in Google searches. It did not respond to requests for comment.)

Indeed, doing nothing, at least at first, is sometimes the best strategy for both influencers and brands that work with them.

We are living in a really reactionary time and I think it's important to take a step back. You have to be thoughtful in your response

“We are living in a really reactionary time and I think it’s important to take a step back. You have to be thoughtful in your response,” said Raina Penchansky, chief executive of Digital Brand Architects. “How can you apologize and really think about the ramifications of what you’ve done unless you take a minute to think?”

It can also be in a brand’s best interest to sit back and see how the influencer responds and how the response is received. Kathleen Lights, who has done multiple collections with Colourpop since 2014, was captured on Snapchat saying the n-word in 2017, a few months after a palette had launched.

It was several months before Colourpop did another palette with Lights, who was mostly forgiven within the community after apologizing immediately on all her channels, contacting her current and previous collaborators and reaching out to drama channels to discuss it openly. Lights did not respond to a request for comment.

It's really important to remember that influencers aren't brands. They're human, and everybody's going to make mistakes.

“We sat quietly and observed and waited to see what the response was. You never want to jump the gun and over-react,” said Wynn. “It’s really important to remember that influencers aren’t brands. They’re human, and everybody’s going to make mistakes. We really listen to our community and gauge the reaction the best that we can.”

Influencers connect with their audience by coming across as “genuine.” The flip side is that apologies can fall flat if they don’t come across as sufficiently sincere.

Nord says it’s also important to not be defensive and to acknowledge how you will change. “I do think you can recover from these things. Don’t explain it away, but acknowledge it and set up a plan to try and fix it,” he said.

“The audience is so smart. They can read people and know if someone is BS’ing and doing fake tears and a fake apology for the sake of saving face versus actually being apologetic,” Stell said. “They need to just talk to the audience and say exactly what they’re sorry for.”

Editor's Note: This article was corrected on May 22, 2019. A previous version of this article referred to the marketing director for Colourpop as Jordynn Winn. This is incorrect. Her name is Jordynn Wynn. 

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