How the YouTuber stole Christmas

Are “What I got for Christmas” videos more than just an innocent social media trend?

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Each video starts the same way: with a disclaimer.

“I’m not in any way trying to brag,” says beauty vlogger Fleur De Force in her “What I Got For CHRISTMAS 2016!” video, before speaking for 13 minutes about her Christmas presents, which include a £209 dress, £220 earrings, and £805 ankle boots. Some variation of these words are uttered in the videos of YouTubers, big and small, who showcase their yuletide gifts for the world to see each year.

“I’m not doing this to show off my presents at all,” says vlogger Tanya Burr in her 2014 video (presents of note: a £180 duck egg Roberts radio and a £300 Kitchen Aid mixer). But if YouTubers aren’t creating “What I got for Christmas videos” to brag or to boast, why are they doing it?

Burr’s answer is simple. In that very same video she explains: “I’m doing this because so many of you have requested it”. This is the first and most important defence of the conspicuous consumption on display in these clips. “What I got for Christmas” videos have been widely requested by YouTubers’ fans since the tag began in the late Noughties, and are hardly causing the commercialisation of Christmas so much as reflecting it.

“I do get why people are horrified by the onslaught of perfectly-presented beauty and lifestyle gurus talking about all the designer things they got for Christmas,” says Lex Croucher, a lifestyle vlogger with over 129,000 subscribers, “but I still actually enjoy watching all types of haul videos.”

Sophia Grace via YouTube

Croucher no longer makes any haul videos herself, as her channel now focuses less on beauty and fashion and more on her vegan lifestyle, politics, and comedy. Her conflicted response to Christmas hauls – that they can be at once jarring but also incredibly entertaining – reflects the complexity of the situation.

Gemma Tomlinson, a blogger and vlogger with over 88,000 subscribers, has similarly nuanced opinions. She no longer makes Christmas hauls since switching to cruelty-free beauty products and attempting to make more ethical choices about her purchases, but is unsure as to whether vloggers are directly fuelling the rise of Christmas consumerism.

“I definitely think these types of videos have a place, it’s mostly escapism and can also be informative for people as they might spot things they like themselves,” she says. “I do think it can fuel comparison and an addiction to materialism but so does our society in general, I suppose. The fact of the matter is these videos get lots of views, so vloggers will make the content the audience demands.”

For YouTubers, more views mean more money, so it is possible that Christmas haulers are not acting entirely altruistically in fulfilling their fan’s fancies. Yet whilst it is unfair to criticise YouTubers for making money in this way (everyone has to eat, after all), some vloggers go further to legitimately profit from their “What I got for Christmas” videos. Underneath Fleur De Force’s video, for example, is a list of links as to where her viewers can purchase the presents on show. Each link is affiliated (you can tell because they have been shortened, and when you click on them the URL redirects via ShopStyle, who run an affiliate program) – meaning she directly profits every time it is clicked. YouTubers are legally free to use these affiliate links without disclaiming or disclosing that they profit from them, but many feel it is better, ethically, to tell their young viewers when they are doing so.

YouTubers must, however, disclose when they have been paid by a brand to feature a product in their video as an advertisement deal, and some are rumoured to charge up to £20,000 to feature a single item in their videos. The Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) ruled in 2014 that vloggers must feature the word "ad" in a video’s title or thumbnail if the video was a paid-for advert by a brand, ending an era of misleading advertisements. Since then, however, some YouTubers have got around this by accepting sponsorships instead of advertisement deals (the difference is that they do not have a script to follow, and that the ASA does not regulate sponsorships). This means that, without breaking any ASA rules, YouTubers can accept money from brands to stealthily market their products. 

Claudia Sulewski via YouTube

This makes it hard to tell if any of these “What I got for Christmas” videos contain sponsorships. In this way, the videos are a perfect end to Vlogmas – the advent period in which YouTubers film a video every day before Christmas, often featuring an abundance of products about which they wax lyrical. Being unsure whether a YouTuber is sponsored or not can make viewers doubt their authenticity. Is it a coincidence that so many vloggers seem to fall in love with the same supermarket from autumn to Christmas time? Perhaps. Perhaps not. 

Yet even without any brand deals behind them, are “What I got for Christmas” videos still problematic?

On the one hand, it can be disturbing to see thousands of pounds worth of presents on display, and on the other, when I bought a £50 (£50!) device that cleaned my make-up brushes this week, I found myself taking to social media to tell others about how good it is. Personally, my main reservations about the videos probably come from the fact that, as a child, I hated coming back to school and my friends asking each other about their gifts, only for them to reveal they got Playstations and ponies before the question turned to me and I awkwardly stuttered out, "Erm... a calendar." (Note, dad, if you're reading: it was a great calendar). 

Yet although it can be jarring to watch these parades of presents, the fact of the matter is – I and many other people still watch them. We are fundamentally nosy about other people’s lives, and YouTubers are surely exhibiting some form of Christmas generosity by allowing us a peek into their own?

Still, it would be nice if these videos didn’t come immediately after Vlogmas – which ends, for many YouTubers, on December 24th. If a YouTuber or two could take the time out to remind their fans that yes, it was still Christmas this week, then perhaps that would combat the materialism on show. Either that, or they could lend me their £805 ankle boots. Please.  

Amelia Tait is a freelance journalist, and was previously the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer. She tweets at @ameliargh

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