Synergise to Hell!

“This feels weird” was my first thought when I clicked on Veritasium’s video on electric vehicles. At first, I thought it was only weird because Derek had applied his lessons about clickbaity thumbnails as detailed in his latest video on viral videos and the YouTube algorithm, but that was at best only part of my spider-senses going off. The first shot of the video hit me pretty hard. Derek walking through a lobby filled with new and shiny BMW cars. Apparently, he was invited to Munich by BMW.

What’s my point with this piece? I don’t know. This is more of an experiment in branching my writing out to different topics. Please leave all the feedback you have. And if you’d rather read something different, please check out the last Eurovision-Review, my first poem on this blog or my serial fiction about trees.

“This feels weird” was my first thought when I clicked on Veritasium’s video on electric vehicles. At first, I thought it was only weird because Derek had applied his lessons about clickbaity thumbnails as detailed in his latest video on viral videos and the YouTube algorithm, but that was at best only part of my spider-senses going off. The first shot of the video hit me pretty hard. Derek walking through a lobby filled with new and shiny BMW cars. Apparently, he was invited to Munich by BMW. I mean that’s fair after all, many YouTubers I enjoy get invited sometimes by companies to film their videos there. The best example of this, that comes to my mind, is Tom Scott.

Still, this felt different, but why? I don’t think sponsored content is prima facie bad, and I think there are great examples of how sponsors can bring their advertisement slots to good use, convince viewers or listeners of their product and sometimes as with the brilliant Cards Against Humanity sponsorships on the Accidental Tech Podcast (ATP), in which they made nitpicky John Siracusa review a variety of toaster ovens. This, however, is at the extreme end of toasters sponsorships working well and enriching the content of content creators. In its way, it is a best-case scenario for both the creator as for the sponsor. Normal unintrusive sponsorships maybe play off of some traits or interests the content creator has, but don’t necessarily infringe on the creators content too much. Audible sponsorships come to mind where the creator just gives a few sales arguments, maybe a book tip and the sponsor, in turn, leaves the rest of the content alone.

John Siracusa’s Toaster Reviews

The two central Veritasium videos are different in two key points: Firstly, the sponsorship isn’t contained to a bounded ad read but comes up multiple times within the video. Secondly, the content of both videos is strictly dependent on the sponsor itself. Both videos wouldn’t make sense without the sponsor setting the video up.

For the BMW sponsored video, the sponsorship seems to make sense. BMW wants to foster an image of technological advancements and hopes to sell cars in a video that is fundamentally about cars. To be more specific: electric cars.

The relation of Starbucks to the content of Liquid Nitrogen seems even more forced. No one would associate their morning coffee with science & technology videos.

This is why the Liquid Nitrogen video needs the help of a made-up challenge. Starbuck has to challenge Derek to make liquid nitrogen because there is no other way to motivate a mention of Starbucks in a roughly ten-minute science video. Showing off the tech Starbucks actually uses to make their Nitro Cold Brew didn’t even make it into the video, and even showing off the admittedly cool pattern of bubbles only made it into the video as an afterthought, even more so than Derek trying Nitro Cold Brew for “the first time” at the start of the video.

It isn’t wrong, all the elements for a good sponsored video are present and still, it feels wrong. It feels wrong because it’s forced. It is awkward to look someone in the eye who’s trying to sell you coffee in a science video without having genuine synergies with the sponsor.

Let’s look at it from a different perspective, the one of the audience. We as viewers have a gut reaction whether something feels genuine or not. That gut reaction might not be true. After all, some people can act better than Derek Muller, but that gut reaction inevitably tinges if we are more willing to get interested in a marketed product.

Sure we have to decide on how we want to be convinced to buy products. Marketing and advertisement is an old industry and I can definitely see moral gradations between someone honestly saying: “Hey I work for Starbucks. And I think you would enjoy Nitro Cold Brew” and more clandestine or covert advertisement like product placement or even non-declared sponsorships. No one wants to read fake or paid reviews for a restaurant without knowing that those reviews aren’t genuine, but as an audience, we still understand there’s a genuine need for creators especially independent creators to make money.

YouTube’s monetisation scheme doesn’t necessarily provide enough revenue to keep a channel going. YouTube’s monetisation at least to an extent keeps content and advertisement separate. Of course, there’s “advertiser-friendly content” and content advertisers don’t want to put advertisements against, but the advertiser has no direct control or influence on the content. This relationship of content and advertisement is definitely the most transparent and least misleading to the audience, but that’s not what advertisement is for.

Hence the ideas of product placement and sponsored content. Blurring the line between pure content and pure advertisement is a winner for those who seek to earn money, but it has its disadvantages for the audience. Suddenly, judgements about products within the content might not be untinged by considerations for the advertiser. Is this cold brew really enjoyable or is the enjoyment faked to appease the advertisement gods?

Certainly, there’s a path for creators to enjoy the benefits of sponsored content without losing their perceived authenticity. This path is contingent on a careful selection of advertisers. The advertisements need to be somewhat related to the actual content, but also not too related to the content. If the advertisements are too far off from the content the target audience is probably missed, if the advertisement is too close too the content potential confusion arises. This is I think the crux with a Starbucks sponsorship in a Veritasium video.

Since I started writing this piece, CGP Grey announced in a video that his YouTube content would stop to be sponsored and that he would concentrate on crowdfunding through Patreon.