Earlier this year, Felix Kjellberg, the Swedish YouTube megastar better known as PewDiePie, caused a stir with a number of “jokes,” including using freelance site Fiverr to recruit people to hold up signs with anti-Semitic messages. In the ensuing controversy, Kjellberg — one of the most popular figures on YouTube with 57 million followers — explained these stunts were just pranks. He intended to show that people on the Internet will do anything for money.
Disney, Kjellberg’s employer, didn’t buy this excuse and ended its relationship with the social-media influencer. This was a wise decision, as Kjellberg is back with another egregious offense. He is using the “n-word” to express annoyance during one of his signature live video-game play-throughs.
If he thought the earlier anti-Semitic "jokes" could be lamely explained away as some kind of off-kilter social commentary, Kjellberg will have a harder time devising an excuse for his latest transgression.
“Jokes” or “pranks” conveying social commentary typically tend to have a punch-line or message that makes sense in context. Also, they are supposed to be funny. Since the incident in question doesn’t meet this criteria, it is clearly what it appears to be: spontaneous, hateful venting, using what is widely regarded as one of the most toxic words in the English language.
A single case of a blogger blurting out a racial epithet might not seem like a big deal, but as noted, Kjellberg isn’t just any blogger. His total following is more than twice the population of Australia. And the incident comes amid a wave of anxiety about mounting racial tensions in the U.S. and Europe — including and his home country of Sweden.
One of the biggest concerns, as U.S. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan recently noted, is that overt (but seemingly “minor” or “casual”) expressions of racism will serve to gradually normalize bigotry in the public sphere.
In August, Ryan told an audience in Everett, Washington: “We can never get normal with this. We must always, every single time, stand up and repudiate it and condemn it unequivocally every time. Because the day we start getting numb to this, is the day they’ve gotten oxygen and they become normalized.”
From a marketing perspective, Kjellberg’s latest offense serves to highlight, yet again, the perils of working with social-media influencers.
Even hugely successful influencers, with massive audiences and businesses to maintain, can go off the rails at any moment in ways that media companies, with rules and standards overseen by multiple responsible individuals, are far less likely to do. (Misjudgments and mistakes will always occur.)
Even more worrying is what I will term the “retrospective halo effect.”
While most big marketers have severed relationships with Kjellberg, in an era when all content lives online forever and can be brought to light with ease, will they be judged for having worked with him at all? Suppose he continues on his current path, garnering more negative publicity for racist or otherwise offensive content?
Many brand managers may wish they’d never heard of PewDiePie.