"Epic Rap Battles of History!" Have you seen these? I stumbled on them during a break from whatever I was pretending to do. I guarantee it's only a matter of days before these guys end up in a Dunkin' Donuts ad. Twenty bucks says they’ll be pitching hamburgers by next week. What marketer could resist? They have a built-in audience and it’s huge. Their rap between Rasputin, Stalin, Lenin, Putin and Gorbachev has gotten nearly 45 million views so far. You pay the YouTube celebrity and you get the personality and reach in one shot. All 45 million and counting. But what will the fans think when the videos become product pitches?
I was talking to Nissan's interactive and social marketing chief, Erich Marx, this week about Nissan’s having signed YouTube celeb T.J. Smith for a Sentra ad campaign. He told me something I didn't know: YouTubers looking to go pro pack into warehouse studios near Studio City, Calif. There, they ensconce themselves and shoot content for whatever solipsistic, nihilistic, meme-ricochet niche they inhabit. And they don't do it for friendship and drinks; the golden hind is potentially big aggregated revenue from advertising percentages via YouTube's Partner Program.
The problem, and one that marketers know (and they have told me so, but not explicitly, by saying, "We are looking for up-and-coming YouTube personalities") is that if someone has already “arrived” by YouTube standards they may not want to do ads. The top dogs are making hundreds of thousands to even a few million dollars per year doing their thing. Why risk turning off your fans by messing with your “brand” as a product pitcher.
Based on responses in AutoTrader's new online ad featuring YouTube celebrity Laina Morris, the "Overly Attached Girlfriend," it's definitely a mixed bag. The first comment: "Autotrader has hired the Overly Attached Girlfriend to shill." And another, "What happened to her complexion? What was wrong with it before AutoTrader?" and "Great Video, (quality and stuff) but I hade [sic] it when youtubers are used to promote companies." But one says, "An actually good YouTube commercial," and another says, "Ever since Samsung I'd been hoping she'd do more ads." Go figure.
In terms of viewership, the spot is doing well, in the short-term window in which it's meant to exist. It has gotten 195,000 views since its June 30 launch. That's around 390,000 per month and consistent with her own videos. One has gotten about 7.06 million views since its late 2012 launch, or about 335,000 views per month. But while these ads might get lots of views, will it be more meaningful to the viewer/fan than a real straightforward product ad? I doubt it.
In a way, hip-hop is a metaphor for this rant. Music polymath Questlove, speaking at an NYU conference recently, noted that the genre has become (paraphrased) all about personality and self-aggrandizement versus social issues. His point about rap today versus the days of political rappers like Public Enemy is pertinent because rap doesn't celebrate the "cold lampin" social ethic of yore, where anyone with DJ equipment and a mike (and some wires) could steal electricity straight from a street light to make music and have a party.
Or to go back even further, take Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, living in a tenement basement in a space that he has completely covered with bulbs, all lit up at once with electricity he has illegally siphoned from his building to make himself visible. That idea has maybe moved to social channels like YouTube, where anyone can steal some juice and have a voice.