×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

PewDiePie’s Business Deal Implosions Show That Digital Celebrities Are Now Mainstream

PewDiePie has lost his deals with Disney’s Maker Studios and YouTube in the wake of his ill-advised pranks to pay random strangers to spout anti-Semitic sentiments. Perhaps counter-intuitively, one of the key takeaways from the turmoil is this: Digital stars have arrived.

The backlash PewDiePie is experiencing now is the same wringer that TV and movie celebs who’ve said dumb and racist things have gone through — whether that’s Mel Gibson, Paula Deen or Michael Richards (Kramer from “Seinfeld”). For digital influencers, in a way PewDiePie’s misfire is an encouraging development, because it illustrates that internet celebs have enough respect to be held to the same standards.

“It’s a clear sign that YouTubers have arrived into the mainstream,” said Joost van Dreunen, CEO of video-game research firm SuperData Research. “Had [PewDiePie] done this five years ago, nobody would have cared.”

The traditional Hollywood establishment, for a long time, hasn’t taken YouTube creators seriously despite their massive fanbases. “They said, ‘Look at these kids with computers in their basements, how cute,'” said van Dreunen. But now, PewDiePie is enough of a high-profile personality that companies like Disney and Google actually care about the content he produces. And when that material crossed the line, they kicked him to the curb.

PewDiePie — the internet handle of 27-year-old Felix Kjellberg — tried to clear the air in a Feb. 12 post on Tumblr, saying he was pointing out how ridiculous it was that he was able to pay someone $5 to say horrible things. “I think of the content that I create as entertainment, and not a place for any serious political commentary,” he wrote. “I know my audience understand[s] that and that is why they come to my channel. Though this was not my intention, I understand that these jokes were ultimately offensive.”

But the damage was already done, and Maker and YouTube felt compelled to cut their ties to PewDiePie over the controversy. “As these digital stars continue to become bigger — and become industries unto themselves — their business partners are going to constantly evaluate and look closely at whether the values of an artist align with the values of the company,” said Brent Weinstein, UTA’s head of digital media.

Like the pioneers in the early days of other media, digital influencers have had the freedom to experiment and push societal boundaries. That used to be because internet stars didn’t really make much money. The independence of YouTubers and other digital creators has allowed them “to be truly authentic, and to move quickly,” said Brendan Gahan of social-media agency Epic Signal. But many often lack professional experience: “They’ve never had to deal with an HR department or a direct supervisor, and oftentimes, shocking behavior is what helps draw eyeballs to their channel to begin with.”

Now PewDiePie has shown that as more dollars flow into the sector, digital creators will increasingly need to adopt the quality-control measures of traditional media companies. “In PewDiePie’s case, his brand was built on being provocative and unexpected,” said Marc Becker, CEO of the Tangent Agency, a creative marketing and strategy agency. “But when one guy goes from being a person making YouTube posts to a major brand… there need to be checks and balances to ensure it doesn’t go too far.”

In short, it’s a wake-up call for all YouTubers, said Gahan: “If PewDiePie, who is at the top of the influencer food chain, is not above losing a deal because of a controversial statement, then nobody is.”

As for what’s next for PewDiePie, it may be that no media company or brand will be interested in teaming up with him in the near future. (An industry source says Disney and YouTube will not try to shop around the second season of “Scare PewDiePie,” which had been set to be released on the YouTube Red subscription service.) So unless he funds it himself, “PewDiePie: The Movie” will not be coming to a screen near you.

Furthermore, many of PewDiePie’s sponsorship deals with game publishers likely were brokered via Maker Studios, so that’s “a hard stop” for now, van Dreunen noted.

Still, Kjellberg is by no means out of business. He’ll still earn a boatload on the ads that YouTube serves on his channel (although YouTube has removed PewDiePie from the higher-priced Google Preferred inventory). Unlike traditional entertainment-industry talent, he doesn’t need a studio or TV network to earn a healthy paycheck.

The salty-tongued Swede has a massive 53 million-plus subscriber base on YouTube, and expect him to keep pumping out outré videos on a regular basis that cater to his legion of “bros.” But at this point, he’ll likely reflect a bit longer before he hits the publish button.

Pictured above: Felix Kjellberg in his Jan. 11 YouTube video detailing the “Death to All Jews” prank.

More Digital

  • Facebook's Oculus Quest Shows How AR

    What the Oculus Quest Can Teach Us About the Future of Mixed Reality

    Facebook’s new Oculus Quest headset is a great gaming device that simplifies virtual reality (VR), doing away with the need for an expensive PC and external tracking hardware. But with its integrated tracking, the Quest can also teach us a thing or two about the future of virtual and augmented reality. Those two areas of [...]

  • snapchat-logo

    Snapchat Takes Down Porn Lenses, May Start Cat-and-Mouse Game

    Snapchat quickly removed a handful of x-rated augmented reality lenses Tuesday, dealing a blow to efforts by adult entertainment company Naughty America to promote its subscriptions to the service’s users. However, the porn studio may not be quite done with Snapchat just yet, as it is still distributing the source files that allow Snapchat users [...]

  • YouTube logo

    Why YouTube Is Changing the Way It Reports Subscriber Counts

    Within the next three months, YouTube will change the way it publicly displays channel subscriber counts: It will provide only rounded figures instead of actual follower numbers. For example, under the change, T-Series — the Indian music-video channel that recently surpassed PewDiePie to become the most-subscribed channel on the platform — would be listed in [...]

  • Phillip Eubanks and Marc Hemeon Join

    Phillip Eubanks and Marc Hemeon Join Troy Carter’s Q&A

    Q&A, the music and tech company founded by former Lady Gaga manager and Spotify exec Troy Carter, today announced the appointments of Phillip Eubanks as Chief Operating Officer (pictured above, right) and Marc Hemeon as Head of Design (left). The pair join Carter, J. Erving (Human Re Sources, Atom Factory), Suzy Ryoo (Atom Factory, OMD) [...]

  • Simran Sethi Quits Netflix India Role

    Simran Sethi Quits Netflix India Role

    Simran Sethi, the Los Angeles-based director of Netflix international originals, responsible for India content, has resigned and will quit after a transition period. Netflix did not comment. Sources familiar with the matter told Variety that Netflix prefers an executive based in India to oversee local original content that has now grown to 11 series and [...]

  • The Secret Life of Pets 2

    ‘The Secret Life of Pets 2’ Tops Studios’ TV Ad Spending

    In this week’s edition of the Variety Movie Commercial Tracker, powered by TV ad measurement and attribution company iSpot.tv, Universal Pictures claims the top spot in spending with “The Secret Life of Pets 2.” Ads placed for the animated film had an estimated media value of $11.52 million through Sunday for 869 national ad airings [...]

  • Cory-Haik-Vice

    Vice Media Hires Cory Haik, Former Mic Publisher, as Chief Digital Officer (EXCLUSIVE)

    Vice Media has recruited Cory Haik, former publisher of digital news start-up Mic, as chief digital officer to lead the youth-culture company’s global internet businesses. Haik will be based at Vice’s Brooklyn headquarters and report to CEO Nancy Dubuc. She most recently worked at Mic, which last fall laid off virtually its entire staff before [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content