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How YouTubers really make their millions

The teenage girls who make up Zoella’s fiercely loyal fanbase are customers, even if they aren’t aware of it.

It’s no longer a secret that Zoella earns more in a month than you do in a year. Accounts obtained by the Sunday Times show that the beauty vlogger, who recently turned 26, profited nearly £400,000 in the eight months from March to November 2014. But far more shocking than the amount of money YouTubers make, is the truth about exactly how they make it.

On 6 March, Zoella uploaded her “February Favourites” video, a round-up of items she’d loved using in the last month. Within moments, Google searches for the products skyrocketed, with two – the Knock Knock Dream Journal and Happiness Planner – quickly selling out. 

Zoella’s fans – who she claims are aged 13-17, but are actually much younger due to YouTube’s minimum sign-up age being 13 – take her word as gospel. When she waxes lyrical about how she is “like just obsessed with” a product, they believe her. But they shouldn’t.

In November 2014, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) implemented a new ruling whereby vloggers had to be “up front and clear” when a video was an advert for a brand. In practical terms, this means YouTubers now place the word “ad” in a paid-for video’s title or thumbnail.

But scan Zoella’s latest uploads and you won’t see the word “ad” in the last six months. She’s not breaking the ASA’s rules, nor has she stopped accepting the rumoured £20,000 it costs to feature a product in her videos. She also isn’t – like her boyfriend and fellow vlogger Alfie Deyes – hiding the word “ad” under YouTube’s time-stamp. In reality, the definition of an “advert” is just very narrow.

“A video doesn’t become an ad just because it’s paid for,” says Matt Wilson, a spokesman for the ASA. “The content has to be paid for and controlled by the brand. We don’t actually regulate sponsorship.” The authority who does regulate sponsorship – the Competition and Markets authority – are currently only beginning to investigate vloggers.

Simply put, under ASA rules, if Zoella is given money but not a script, she doesn’t have to disclose anything. On platforms such as Snapchat, she can stealthily market a product (say, for example, some Calvin Klein underpants) without having to say a word. Marketers themselves don’t mind this, as they proudly boast that consumers trust reviews nearly 12 times more than brand-written content.

But hey, who cares? She’s no different from Brad Pitt drinking a Pepsi, or Nicki Minaj donning some Beats, right? Except she is. The third word in Zoella’s Twitter bio (after “YouTuber” and “blogger”) is “friend”. She has been variously described as a “big sister” and “average girl-next-door” by mainstream media. Her entire brand is founded on honesty, authenticity, and friendship.

“It’s weird how YouTubers say we’re all friends,” says Lauren Hichens, a 21-year-old student from Nottingham who started watching Zoella four years ago.

“They’re making money off us. We’re kind of their job. I don’t know if they see us as consumers or friends, but a lot of the time I think it’s consumers.”

Lauren lost interest in Zoella when she began doing frequent sponsorships, as she questioned whether the beauty guru really liked the products she was featuring.

“She did a skincare regime that was sponsored by Simple but a month earlier she had talked about her skincare and only mentioned high-end products,” says Lauren. “I completely understand that’s how they make money but it’s the way they go about it. I felt it was really false of her.”

This, of course, isn’t the first time Zoella has been caught misleading fans. In October 2015, she was forced to admit ghostwriter Siobhan Curham wrote her debut novel Girl Online. Recently, eagle-eyed fans spotted some of her blogs were authored by another Brighton-based blogger, Carrie Fry.

Her boyfriend Alfie was also criticised because his Pointless Books are similar to the best-selling Wreck This Journal. But it’s not just successful writers the pair rip off.

On 4 December 2014, a fan tweeted Alfie a mock-up of black beanie, featuring the words “Sorry about my hair”. Alfie then cropped the picture and asked his followers the name of the font used, deleting his tweet once he got the answer.

One month later, the hat was being sold for £12.99 on Alfie’s official online store. The fan received no credit, no payment, and no free hat. Far from criticising Alfie for this, she later tweeted: “it bothers me that people are using me to hate on Alfie”.

Believe it or not, “Zalfie” (that is, Zoella and Alfie) profit from their followers even more directly than this. The pair have charged £75 to meet with viewers, and happily encourage fans to give them gifts.

“You guys are the best,” said Zoella in a February 2015 video, “America Haul”, referring to viewers who brought her gifts, including body mists, candles, and sweets. Later, she even name-checks specific fans. More recently, after a book-signing with hundreds of pre-teen girls, she proudly boasted: “There are so many presents they’re having to be sent back to my house in a taxi.” It is this sort of behaviour that encourages fans to send gifts to her PO box (conveniently listed in the “About” section of her YouTube channel).

It’s clear that Zoella’s fans are fiercely loyal. So much so that she probably needn’t worry – as many YouTubers do – that her views would decline if she placed “ad” in a video title. But even if they did, isn’t honesty more important than a few extra views?

Mikhila McDaid, a 30-year-old beauty vlogger with nearly 87,000 subscribers, thinks so. Unlike most YouTubers, she created a specific video explaining her advertising policy, and has a disclaimer under every video on her channel MissBudgetBeauty.

“I wish more people would talk about sponsorship,” she says. “Viewers are becoming less trusting every day and the community was built on trust.”

Mikhila freely admits to her audience that links under her vlogs may be affiliate, meaning she receives money when they’re clicked. Zoella’s own affiliate links, which include not only products mentioned in videos but the clothes she is wearing and items in the background, are currently unmarked.

“I like to add disclaimers for anything where money is involved,” says Mikhila.  

“It's a very short game to lie to people who put value in your opinion and who in turn made your opinion valuable.”

From a moral standpoint, Mikhila’s attitude is commendable, but she and Zoella are obeying the law in equal degrees. Unless the rules change, Zoella doesn’t have to.  

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

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The Brexit Beartraps, #2: Could dropping out of the open skies agreement cancel your holiday?

Flying to Europe is about to get a lot more difficult.

So what is it this time, eh? Brexit is going to wipe out every banana planet on the entire planet? Brexit will get the Last Night of the Proms cancelled? Brexit will bring about World War Three?

To be honest, I think we’re pretty well covered already on that last score, but no, this week it’s nothing so terrifying. It’s just that Brexit might get your holiday cancelled.

What are you blithering about now?

Well, only if you want to holiday in Europe, I suppose. If you’re going to Blackpool you’ll be fine. Or Pakistan, according to some people...

You’re making this up.

I’m honestly not, though we can’t entirely rule out the possibility somebody is. Last month Michael O’Leary, the Ryanair boss who attracts headlines the way certain other things attract flies, warned that, “There is a real prospect... that there are going to be no flights between the UK and Europe for a period of weeks, months beyond March 2019... We will be cancelling people’s holidays for summer of 2019.”

He’s just trying to block Brexit, the bloody saboteur.

Well, yes, he’s been quite explicit about that, and says we should just ignore the referendum result. Honestly, he’s so Remainiac he makes me look like Dan Hannan.

But he’s not wrong that there are issues: please fasten your seatbelt, and brace yourself for some turbulence.

Not so long ago, aviation was a very national sort of a business: many of the big airports were owned by nation states, and the airline industry was dominated by the state-backed national flag carriers (British Airways, Air France and so on). Since governments set airline regulations too, that meant those airlines were given all sorts of competitive advantages in their own country, and pretty much everyone faced barriers to entry in others. 

The EU changed all that. Since 1994, the European Single Aviation Market (ESAM) has allowed free movement of people and cargo; established common rules over safety, security, the environment and so on; and ensured fair competition between European airlines. It also means that an AOC – an Air Operator Certificate, the bit of paper an airline needs to fly – from any European country would be enough to operate in all of them. 

Do we really need all these acronyms?

No, alas, we need more of them. There’s also ECAA, the European Common Aviation Area – that’s the area ESAM covers; basically, ESAM is the aviation bit of the single market, and ECAA the aviation bit of the European Economic Area, or EEA. Then there’s ESAA, the European Aviation Safety Agency, which regulates, well, you can probably guess what it regulates to be honest.

All this may sound a bit dry-

It is.

-it is a bit dry, yes. But it’s also the thing that made it much easier to travel around Europe. It made the European aviation industry much more competitive, which is where the whole cheap flights thing came from.

In a speech last December, Andrew Haines, the boss of Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority said that, since 2000, the number of destinations served from UK airports has doubled; since 1993, fares have dropped by a third. Which is brilliant.

Brexit, though, means we’re probably going to have to pull out of these arrangements.

Stop talking Britain down.

Don’t tell me, tell Brexit secretary David Davis. To monitor and enforce all these international agreements, you need an international court system. That’s the European Court of Justice, which ministers have repeatedly made clear that we’re leaving.

So: last March, when Davis was asked by a select committee whether the open skies system would persist, he replied: “One would presume that would not apply to us” – although he promised he’d fight for a successor, which is very reassuring. 

We can always holiday elsewhere. 

Perhaps you can – O’Leary also claimed (I’m still not making this up) that a senior Brexit minister had told him that lost European airline traffic could be made up for through a bilateral agreement with Pakistan. Which seems a bit optimistic to me, but what do I know.

Intercontinental flights are still likely to be more difficult, though. Since 2007, flights between Europe and the US have operated under a separate open skies agreement, and leaving the EU means we’re we’re about to fall out of that, too.  

Surely we’ll just revert to whatever rules there were before.

Apparently not. Airlines for America – a trade body for... well, you can probably guess that, too – has pointed out that, if we do, there are no historic rules to fall back on: there’s no aviation equivalent of the WTO.

The claim that flights are going to just stop is definitely a worst case scenario: in practice, we can probably negotiate a bunch of new agreements. But we’re already negotiating a lot of other things, and we’re on a deadline, so we’re tight for time.

In fact, we’re really tight for time. Airlines for America has also argued that – because so many tickets are sold a year or more in advance – airlines really need a new deal in place by March 2018, if they’re to have faith they can keep flying. So it’s asking for aviation to be prioritised in negotiations.

The only problem is, we can’t negotiate anything else until the EU decides we’ve made enough progress on the divorce bill and the rights of EU nationals. And the clock’s ticking.

This is just remoaning. Brexit will set us free.

A little bit, maybe. CAA’s Haines has also said he believes “talk of significant retrenchment is very much over-stated, and Brexit offers potential opportunities in other areas”. Falling out of Europe means falling out of European ownership rules, so itcould bring foreign capital into the UK aviation industry (assuming anyone still wants to invest, of course). It would also mean more flexibility on “slot rules”, by which airports have to hand out landing times, and which are I gather a source of some contention at the moment.

But Haines also pointed out that the UK has been one of the most influential contributors to European aviation regulations: leaving the European system will mean we lose that influence. And let’s not forget that it was European law that gave passengers the right to redress when things go wrong: if you’ve ever had a refund after long delays, you’ve got the EU to thank.

So: the planes may not stop flying. But the UK will have less influence over the future of aviation; passengers might have fewer consumer rights; and while it’s not clear that Brexit will mean vastly fewer flights, it’s hard to see how it will mean more, so between that and the slide in sterling, prices are likely to rise, too.

It’s not that Brexit is inevitably going to mean disaster. It’s just that it’ll take a lot of effort for very little obvious reward. Which is becoming something of a theme.

Still, we’ll be free of those bureaucrats at the ECJ, won’t be?

This’ll be a great comfort when we’re all holidaying in Grimsby.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.