Business Talk: Sponsorship in the YouTube Beauty Community

In my YouTube blog, I mentioned that I watched beauty gurus -- or people who make videos about makeup. The beauty guru community is currently in hot water over money, and I’m interested to pull you into the conversation and see what you think. I’ll do my best to explain in such a way that even if you’ve never seen a beauty video ever in your life, you’ll be able to chime in. Would love your thoughts in the comments.

Their Videos

Gurus do a variety of videos, some do more of one style than others. Generally it falls into:

  1. How-to makeup tutorials or tips and tricks

  2. Reviews of new makeup releases (or accessories) which involves trying it on & talking about what you like and/or dislike about the product.

  3. Haul videos (“I bought at Sephora”) or PR videos (“the makeup brand sent me makeup in the mail”) (The difference between these and reviews are that the guru just mentions the product here, and 99% of the time, doesn’t test it.)

  4. Get Ready With Me” (GRWM) or / “Full face of makeup” Full face videos usually have themes like “Full face of brands that hate me” or “Full face of L’Oreal” reviewing the makeup along with application.  GRWMs usually don’t include reviews, but maybe casual comments about the makeup, along with life updates, embarrassing past stories, etc.

There might be more types. Anyway.

How They Make Money

Right now, there’s some serious allegations going around about sponsorships in videos.

Celebrity Sponsorship

Celebrities and other influencers have been endorsing products as long as there has been a free market.  Michael Jordan had a famous relationship with Nike. Britney Spears signed with Pepsi. William Shatner is only known to the young people as “the guy from those Priceline commercials”. And Jennifer Aniston has a longstanding relationship with Aveeno, appearing in both print and video commercials.

So why does having a beauty guru say nice things about a makeup product because they were paid to do so feel so….icky?

Firstly, I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with a sponsored video, as long as laws and common ethics are followed. With YouTube, the feeling is the same. I cheer when “traditional” brands take notice & fund channels I love like Smarter Every Day and Rhett and Link. I can see from a brand standpoint where Influencer ads are much more cost lucrative than traditional advertising. But if I was a beauty guru, I wouldn’t do them.

And here’s why.

Nobody cares about ads.

Americans these days are incredibly de-sensitised to advertisements. You only need to look at your own life to see the proof. Don’t you scroll right past any post or picture with the word “Sponsored”? Don’t you skip past every skippable ad? Isn’t 99% of the reason for your Netflix subscription because you don’t want commercials? (And before Netflix, didn’t you have TiVo to fast-forward through them?) Even if you’re still living in the dark ages, don’t you skip right over the advertisements printed in the newspaper? (And you, newspapers? Ugh Gosh C’mon.) So for me, the viewer, would I buy a sponsored brand’s product specifically because they sponsor my favorite YouTubers? NO. Would I much rather buy the YouTuber’s merch or collabs to show my support for them (& probably, put much more money in their actual pocket)? YES!

I put value on your opinion.

Other than the basic how-to videos, beauty gurus are constantly talking about and trying different makeup products. When Tarte Shape Tape concealer came out in 2016(?) all the beauty gurus raved about it. Sales soared—so much so that when it came back in restock, Tarte itself limited sales to 2 per customer. And it’s still called “iconic” and to this day, I hardly see a new concealer reviewed on a beauty channel without at least a mention to the Shape Tape. Gurus start trends. They are where a product thrives or dies.

Because the beauty gurus get makeup, via PR, before everyone else, their first impression will become our first impression. When I have seen a beauty guru test something out, I already have opinions on what that product is like, despite the fact I’ve never even seen it in real life.

This is the difference that separates beauty gurus from even other YouTubers. When I watch Rhett and Link, I’m not watching them to find out how to make my first million dollars. So I am undaunted when they are sponsored by Skillshare. When I watch Smarter Every Day, I’m not really looking for mattress advice so the fact that he’s sponsored by Caspar mattresses really is no skin off my back. Even as Nicole Guerriero, a beauty guru, is sponsored by Audible, that’s not makeup, so that’s still completely fine. When I watch beauty gurus, I’m counting on their opinion about makeup, and when they are sponsored by makeup companies, it gets tricky. All the sudden I’m filtering everything they say about their sponsored product through the lens of “this company gave them money” or “this company sent them on a free trip” or whatever, even if what they are saying are truly their honest opinions, I don’t know if I could ever trust it 100%. But it extends to other brands too, like, how can I trust your bad review of a Colourpop concealer when you are sponsored by Too Faced and they have a brand new concealer? Part of being sponsored by a brand is directing people toward that brand for their purchases. If the Too Faced concealer is the only one you ever have anything nice to say about, that’s suspicious to me. And if you give a eyeshadow palette a bad review, but then encourage us to buy your own eyeshadow palette, that’s sketchy.

If you’re paid one way or the other, you can no longer have an honest opinion. If you can’t have an honest opinion, I can’t trust you. If I can’t trust you, I won’t watch you. AND THAT’S THE TEA.

That’s why, if I ever was a beauty guru, I wouldn’t do sponsored videos by makeup brands. I’d be happy to partner with non-makeup brands, but I’d just rather save my reputation and my integrity and stay away.

But it gets worse.

Some of the serious allegations going around in the community are that beauty gurus are ducking national disclosure laws and are NOT disclosing their sponsorships. This video, if true, is especially damning, since NikkieTutorials is one of the biggest on the platform. It alleges that a video Nikkie uploaded raving about a makeup sponge, was in fact, sponsored at the time of its upload, and Nikkie didn’t disclose it. (I actually watched the video when it was uploaded and it DID feel sponsored to me.) As the video correctly describes, a week later, Nikkie tweeted that the company had seen her video & sent her a coupon code so her viewers could get 10% off when they purchase. But this wasn’t disclosed at the time of upload and, Nikkie claimed, only in response to her viewers flooding their website to purchase upon her recommendation.

Some of these videos claim that sponsorship can be on many levels to include: positive reviews of their products, negative reviews of a competing product, or just showing their makeup in a PR haul. If that’s the case, and sponsorships can take on many, many different levels, I’d want more exact disclosures in the description boxes of the video. I think that even a “*This video was sponsored by _” would be insufficient. As a consumer, the courts have already ruled that we have a right to know when we are being advertised to (Instagram influencers' sponsored posts, for instance, must include #ad) so I feel that if the ad is buried or hidden within 20 minutes of content, it’s not full disclosure.

And then, what about sponsorship that really isn’t sponsorship? What if there’s no money on the table, but the company is sending that PR for free? If a company sent you hundreds of dollars worth of their product for free, would YOU feel totally comfortable giving your honest opinion? (YouTubers have discussed being taken off a company’s PR list as a punishment for bad reviews.) And, if a company sent you on a trip, or sponsored your hotel room, or gave you something for free, wouldn’t it change what you said about that company? Last year, Benefit gave a bunch of Influencers a free trip to some tropical island “in celebration” of their launch of some product. But what did they know they would get in return? 20+ influencer videos talking all about the trip and thanking Benefit and saying how great the product was. They’re not dumb. If no money exchanged hands, this was still clearly a form of sponsorship.

Obviously if you’re cleverly skirting around your country’s disclosure laws, that’s not right. If you’re just full-on not disclosing who has given you money to do things, that’s not right either. I wasn’t in the room and I haven’t seen any contracts, so I’m not making any claims on anybody. Frankly, I probably know less than the average person. But I know this: money always makes things more complicated. If the exchange of money—to you or from you—makes you even the least bit nervous or worried, BACK OUT.

OK, that’s probably all you care to hear, so I’ll leave it at that. Are you cool with beauty gurus being sponsored by makeup companies? At what level? Tell me your thoughts in the comments.

(Next week: Phew. This has been too many serious posts. Next week, your job is to laugh and not to learn about or have an opinion on anything. Deal? Deal.)