U.S. teenagers are more enamored with YouTube stars than they are the biggest celebrities in film, TV and music.
That’s the surprising result of a survey Variety commissioned in July that found the five most influential figures among Americans ages 13-18 are all YouTube faves, eclipsing mainstream celebs including Jennifer Lawrence and Seth Rogen. The highest-ranking figures were Smosh, the online comedy team of Ian Andrew Hecox and Anthony Padilla, both 26.
Despite having minimal exposure in the mainstream media, another comedy duo, known as the Fine Bros., Benny and Rafi, finished a close second, followed by the Swedish videogamer who has the most subscribers on all of YouTube, Felix Arvid Ulf Kjellberg — otherwise known as PewDiePie. Interestingly, the highest-ranking non-YouTuber is Paul Walker, who tragically died in a car accident late in 2013.
The survey, conducted for Variety by celebrity brand strategist Jeetendr Sehdev, asked 1,500 respondents a battery of questions assessing how 20 well-known personalities stacked up in terms of approachability, authenticity and other criteria considered aspects of their overall influence. Half the 20 were drawn from the English-language personalities with the most subscribers and video views on YouTube, the other half were represented by the celebrities with the highest Q scores among U.S. teens aged 13-17, as of March.
A score was then assigned to each YouTube and mainstream star based on how they fared in respondents’ answers to the questions, and the resulting number was translated to a 100-point scale. The top five — and six of the top 10 — were YouTube stars.
Drilling deeper into the survey, Sehdev found that YouTube stars scored significantly higher than traditional celebrities across a range of characteristics considered to have the highest correlation to influencing purchases among teens. YouTubers were judged to be more engaging, extraordinary and relatable than mainstream stars, who were rated as being smarter and more reliable. In terms of sex appeal, the two types of celebs finished just about even.
Looking at survey comments and feedback, teens enjoy an intimate and authentic experience with YouTube celebrities, who aren’t subject to image strategies carefully orchestrated by PR pros. Teens also say they appreciate YouTube stars’ more candid sense of humor, lack of filter and risk-taking spirit, behaviors often curbed by Hollywood handlers.
That should sound a warning to YouTube celebs looking to cash in on their fame via the traditional Tinseltown infrastructure, Sehdev notes.
“If YouTube stars are swallowed by Hollywood, they are in danger of becoming less authentic versions of themselves, and teenagers will be able to pick up on that,” Sehdev says. “That could take away the one thing that makes YouTube stars so appealing.”
Better perhaps that Hollywood take a page from the YouTube playbook, Sehdev observes. By encouraging unvarnished individualism, studios and networks can help foster traditional celebs’ appeal among younger demographics.
Q scores were determined to be the most reliable indicator for the survey’s selection of mainstream stars, whose popularity can be fleeting among teenage demographics. In addition, many prominent celebrities well known to younger consumers may not necessarily be the most popular among them because their prominence is driven more by notoriety, as opposed to true appeal.