YouTube creators can’t escape questionable sponsorship controversies
Felix “PewDiePie” Kjellberg published a video last week sponsored by a strange social media app called Nimses, kicking off a renewed debate around creators’ responsibility to vet the quality and safety of the products they’re promoting.
The app is reminiscent of Facebook’s groups feature, which allows users to join communities around certain subjects (mostly memes at this point). It also includes a constant photo feed, which will feel familiar to Instagram users. But Nimses also has some more unusual features: each minute spent in the app grants users a digital currency called Nim, which can supposedly be used to buy things. The app also shows you other users who are in a two-mile radius, not unlike dating apps.
Nimses’ location features and privacy settings led many fans of Kjellberg to complain that he was promoting an invasive app that some referred to as a pyramid scheme because of a referral program that offered more in-app currency. At the same time, the app spiked in downloads after he promoted it, jumping up more than 500 spots on Apple’s ranking of popular iOS social media apps over the course of a week, to become the 20th most popular today.
The YouTube community first saw mass allegations of irresponsible sponsorships last fall when a number of prominent personalities were accused of misleading viewers over a mental wellness app called BetterHelp. The situation forced creators like Philip DeFranco and BetterHelp to reevaluate how sponsorships should work on YouTube. Other creators, like Jake Paul and Brian “RiceGum” Le, came under fire earlier this year for creating sponsored videos about loot boxes that are targeted toward young audiences.
Concerns about Nimses flooded Reddit after Kjellberg promoted it, and YouTubers published videos calling him out for highlighting an app that was immediately seen as sketchy. One YouTube creator, who goes by VangelinaSkov, argued in a video that many of the privacy issues people were freaking out over in Nimses also exist within other social media apps like Facebook, Snapchat, and Twitter. But the bigger issue, VangelinaSkov said, was that Kjellberg, who has around 97 million subscribers, was promoting it in the first place.
“This was obviously something that was going to spark a bit of a debate and a controversy, which is something PewDiePie needs to be avoiding considering his history,” she said. “And I feel like he probably should have known that was not the best idea.”
Even Germany’s Pirate Party issued a warning over the app, condemning Kjellberg’s promotion of the product in his video. Daniel Mönch, political director of the Pirate Party, wrote that Kjellberg was promoting a potentially harmful app to his large subscriber base. Mönach argued that it’s part of an ongoing issue with YouTube sponsorships and promotions.
The app’s creators didn’t expect the controversy, Andrey Boborykin, head of marketing and communications at Nimses, told The Verge. Nimses spent time working with Kjellberg to prepare him for the video, sending over additional details to ensure he was caught up on the app’s concept. The immediate reaction after Kjellberg’s initial video went up “looked rather scary,” but Boborykin suggested that after a couple of hours, things calmed down.
“I personally feel that this could be the result of general conversation about social media, big tech, and privacy, and it doesn’t have to deal with PewDiePie and his sponsors or YouTubers in general and their sponsors,” Boborykin said. “The audience for PewDiePie’s channel consists of young people who are heavy internet users so it’s rather natural that they speak out about their feelings this way.”
But like last year’s BetterHelp debacle, the Nimses controversy became too big for those involved to ignore. Boborykin published a blog post addressing the concerns, attributed the “misconceptions and confusion” to finer points about the app effectively being lost in translation. The lengthy blog post addresses a number of key issues that users have routinely brought up: he writes that Nimses does not sell user data, does not provide exact location data of players to other people in-game, and will provide detailed data reports for anyone who asks.
“Literally every social media app tracks the way Nimses does.”
“Nimses is still a relatively new company,” Boborykin wrote. “Like so many start-ups, we are not perfect but we are learning and refining our project with each new user. Going forward, we are committed to communicating more clearly to our users.”
Kjellberg also dismissed the concerns around Nimses as “rumors” in a follow-up video, saying that it was no more invasive than other social media apps. “Literally every social media app tracks the way Nimses does,” Kjellberg said yesterday. “They’re not paying me to defend these allegations, but you’re just going off rumors. If you’re worried about your privacy, by all means, don’t sign up for a social media network.”
YouTube’s sponsorship policies are murky at best, but the company does reiterate on its help page that creators and companies must abide by YouTube’s ad policies when promoting products. One clause states that creators can’t misrepresent a product or service, which includes “making misleading or unrealistic claims regarding weight loss or financial gains.” Nimses currently promises that in-game currency will translate to real-world purchases, but there’s no estimated time frame for that rollout.
As one of the platform’s largest creators, Kjellberg may have a heightened responsibility to vet products and consider the potential blowback before he promotes them. Kjellberg isn’t the first YouTube creator to partner with Nimses, but VangelinaSkov argued that by working with the app, Kjellberg makes it acceptable for other creators to agree to a sponsorship with them, too.