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Glam or sham: how the big brands cash in on YouTube's beauty vloggers

As makeup ‘gurus’ bag swag and all-expenses-paid trips to paradise, the cosmetic companies make their presence felt


In late January, a troupe of makeup obsessives were sent on an all-expenses-paid trip to paradise.

The YouTube beauty “gurus” – whose makeup tutorials have amassed them almost 30 million loyal viewers – were flown by the cosmetics brand Benefit to Soneva Jani: a Maldives resort where a night’s stay ranges from US$4,000 to US$15,000. On the final night Benefit announced the reason for the gathering: a new mascara that retails for US$24.

“Press trips” like these, once the domain of lucky journalists at mainstream media companies, are now the ultimate marker of social media influence. They’re at once a reward for vloggers and an opportunity for brands to be mentioned on their YouTube channels – product placement that can otherwise cost thousands of dollars a post.

The YouTubers on the trip were not Benefit loyalists. Take Chloe Morello, for instance: one of Australia’s most-watched YouTubers with more than 2.4 million subscribers.

Morello and her husband vlogged the Maldives trip, which doubled as their honeymoon, during which she demonstrated to her fans a “vacation makeup routine”. This featured eight brands, including Benefit, her own line Face Halo, and Tarte – a brand that last year flew her and other YouTubers to Bora Bora. She also took the opportunity to plug her new collaboration with Pixi: a face palette and lip gloss that she’d unveiled on her channel four days earlier.

For the savvy content creator,there’s a constellation of potential income streams in the beauty world – and those with the most lucrative careers are able to mix and match.

‘Can’t wait to see your post!’: the pressure to play nice

Michael Finch is a 21-year-old, Brisbane-based beauty guru who has been filming makeup tutorials and product reviews for four years. He belongs to a growing community of male beauty YouTubers, who include names like Patrick Starr, Manny MUA, Jeffree Star and James Charles, who became the first male CoverGirl ambassador in 2016.

More than 17 million subscribers watch these men brush, dab and preen for the camera, using the same products as their female counterparts. And there’s a lot of product: the dramatic makeup looks that dominate Instagram and YouTube involve baking, contouring, strobing – and can require several products layered one on top of the other.

As well as earning income from Google AdSense (the ads that run before and during YouTube videos, which pay per click) and a series of masterclasses (where audience members paid between A$399 and A$650), Finch makes money from brand sponsorships. “That’s just brands reaching out to you to promote their product if you like it,” he explains.

In accordance with Australian consumer laws, paid-for content must be clearly marked as “sponsored”. Last year the US Federal Trade Commission updated its guidelines on social media disclosures for the first time since 2010, when the thought of people earning millions for recommending lipstick on YouTube was unheard of. About the same time the Australian Association of National Advertisers established a new code for social media users, who can now be fined up to A$220,000 a post if they fail to disclose a commercial arrangement or are found to be “misleading by omission”.

But a grey area still exists when products are sent to an influencer, unprompted and without prior agreement. Being added to a PR list for mailouts is how vloggers can prove their industry cred, but Finch says it’s often unclear what – if anything – is expected. “A lot of brands send stuff to my PO box and don’t expect anything back … But some brands will send you [product] and then send an email saying, ‘Can’t wait to see your post!’”

With a YouTube subscriber count of more than 800,000, Finch’s profile is growing, and the Maldives gathering was his first press trip. Attendance, Finch says, carried only the expectation that he would post one Instagram photo. In the end he posted four tagging the brand, and one half-hour vlog, which opened with a Benefit employee effusively describing the product launch.

That video was not labelled as sponsored, as the brand did not pay him to produce it – but, after an all-expenses-paid trip to the Maldives, can any content about the brand that sent a vlogger there be truly independent?

‘Sometimes I’ve been a little too myself’

On platforms including YouTube and Instagram, where influence often comes down to relatability, an influencer might prefer to let a sponsorship deal fly under the radar: that way their content will appear more organic and their opinions uncompromised. But with regulations slow to catch up to the new economy, young, unsuspecting audiences are often left unaware of when they’re being advertised to – or the pressure brands are placing on their favourite YouTuber to play nice.

Jackie Aina is a YouTube beauty guru from Los Angeles and the recipient of a National Association for the Advancement of Colored People image award. She reviews products like Kim Kardashian West’s debut range of contour kits to decide if they’re “chocolate girl-friendly” and shares her thoughts with her audience of more than 2 million subscribers.

La Bronze James (@jackieaina)

"Darker skinned people don't buy as much in cosmetics"

Because we don't have as much to buy in the FIRST PLACE pic.twitter.com/dLPyhOgKS8

July 12, 2017

When she tested a new line of foundation by Tarte, she found it featured a dozen fair/neutral shades and only three designed for people of colour. “This brand embodies the exact opposite of everything that I stand for,” she said in her video.

After posting an earlier video criticising the brand for a product that didn’t cater to shoppers with dark complexions, Aina told her viewers she had been removed from Tarte’s PR list and would be receiving no more product.

Finch has felt the pressure too; he’s “been kicked off a few PR lists”, he says. “Sometimes I‘ve been a little too myself and it’s gotten me into trouble.”

It illustrates yet another way that, for social media influencers and brands, the line between paid promotion and recommendation is blurrier than it has ever been.

Unboxing, decluttering and the apolitical plug

Last year the website Racked published a series titled The Swag Project. Staff collated all the free products, gifts and experiences (and their packaging) they were sent or offered over the course of six months. Of the 2,972 items, 2,350 were beauty products with a total retail value of US$64,000. The website published pieces that mentioned just 3% of them.

Racked (@Racked)

Welcome to The Swag Project, Racked’s investigation into the incredible amount of free stuff brands send fashion editors in hopes of getting press coverage. https://t.co/G3rZ35wV3F pic.twitter.com/dfbYfTYthU

November 13, 2017

As part of the series, Racked interviewed PR employees responsible for deciding who gets sent what. One former publicist began working for a haircare brand when “influencer gifting was ‘nonexistent’. By the time he left the company last year, his team was sending new products to roughly 60 print editors, 60 to 100 digital editors, and between 300 and 600 influencers.”

Shannon Harris was probably one of them. Named one of Forbes’ “10 most powerful influencers in the world of beauty” last year, the 25-year-old New Zealander has been uploading videos under the moniker Shaaanxo since 2009. She has more than 3 million subscribers on YouTube, so getting a product mentioned in one of her videos is a goal for many working in beauty PR.

So is watching her unpack them. On Harris’s “hauls” playlist there are more than 11 hours’ worth of videos with titles like “PR haul” and “Unboxing free stuff” in which she opens parcels on camera, describes their contents and, occasionally, swatches a lipstick or eyeshadow on the back of her hand. Unboxing videos are safe spaces for beauty vloggers and brands: the company is happy because a product got a mention and the influencer doesn’t have to risk an opinion.

Many of the products Harris receives will be mentioned only once more: when she features them in one of her “decluttering and organisation” videos.

Harris has uploaded 15 of these videos totalling more than nine hours. In them, she decides which products will be thrown out, gifted to family or followers, or donated to charity.

Although they aren’t directly sponsored, these videos make money for Harris – not from the brands but from her viewers. Advertisers pay YouTube each time one of their ads is watched, and the creator pockets about 68% of that. So Harris earns about 12 US cents for each of the cumulative millions of views she receives for unpacking boxes.

When ‘democratising’ is anything but

Gifting, press trips and “unboxing hauls” form a new economy that feeds the beauty industry – but regulating its grey areas would require explicit disclosures that wouild threaten its very nature.

The journey from shopping at Sephora to being sent an enormous box of highlighters is now, it seems, the goal for makeup fans turned beauty gurus. And for the brands doing the sending, having your product’s features read aloud by someone with a dedicated audience who perceives him or her as being “down to earth” is a more direct and cost-effective way of reaching customers than recruiting a Hollywood star to wear a new shade at the Oscars.

But that “down to earth” influencer could be earning millions a year, benefiting from a fast-moving but poorly regulated industry. And as influencers earn more followers and money, the products they showcase become further out of reach.

Nikkie De Jager is a 24-year-old Dutch makeup artist with more than 9 million followers, who has filmed videos with celebrities including Kardashian West and Nicole Ritchie. To recreate one of her tutorials would require more than a dozen products and hundreds of dollars. (To buy these products, subscribers can click “affiliate links” which pay her commission.)

Influencers like De Jager are a symbol of a perceived democratisation of the beauty industry, in which the path to recognition no longer requires years of studying and mentorship.

Yet this changing of the guard is ultimately little more than a popularity contest. Those with the most fans and (more often than not) the fairest complexions get the offers and exclusives and special treatment – while the followers who get them there get a 10% off discount codefrom an industry that leaves them behind.

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