Serendipity & Celebrity


The perils of the guileless YouTube star

Bethany Mota speaking at VidCon 2014 in Anaheim, California.

Bethany Mota speaking at VidCon 2014 in Anaheim, California. Photo credit: Gage Skidmore

There’s a familiar arc to the story of many young YouTube stars. It begins with the discovery of a video camera sometime in early teens. It proceeds to an upload to YouTube of a primitive production, something guileless and genuine cast adrift like a message in a bottle tossed into the sea with no real expectation of ever being read. But it finds an audience for reasons that no one, not even its producer, understands. More videos follow, the audience continues to grow and a YouTube star is born, living a life of celebrity and comfort that he or she never had dreamed possible.

That is the condensed autobiography told to the audience at The Art of Marketing conference on June 14 by Bethany Mota, the 20-year old fashion vlogger with 10 million subscribers and, as estimated by Business Insider, a half-million dollar per year income. Mota shared the stage with marketing wizard Mitch Joel, whose unenviable task it was to interview Mota, coaxing from her the insights that have led to her remarkable success.

Except what increasingly became apparent was that the secret to Mota’s success is mostly serendipity. There was no strategy. There was no plan. There wasn’t even much of an idea. She is simply a pleasant young woman who speaks honestly to the camera about things that interest her. By pure happenstance, 10 million others share those interests and, through YouTube and other digital platforms, they have found each other.

The same can be said, albeit on a smaller scale, of four Vancouver lads in their mid-twenties, known collectively as High On Life SundayFundayz, until a little more than a month ago when their little corner of the Internet turned on them with wild fury. Until then, High On Life SundayFundayz has accumulated a respectable 284,000 subscribers to their YouTube channel, on which they hosted videos of themselves doing goofy things in exotic locations. Popular videos drew views in the millions and big brands – Bud Light, Red Bull, Mott’s Clamato, Contiki were among those listed on their website – had worked with them on various promotions. Fortunately for those brands, none was on board when the High On Life guys wandered off the wooden walkway that protects the ecologically-sensitive ground at Yellowstone Park’s Grand Prismatic Spring and posted photos and video to prove it.

Reaction on their YouTube channel and their Facebook page was swift and furious. It may have remained confined in-house had news media not caught wind of a series of petitions that sprung up (one collecting more than 21,000 signatures), urging partnering brands (erroneously labelled as sponsors) to dump the group. At least one (Bud Light) has responded clarifying that it was not a sponsor, not associated with the Yellowstone stunt, and had severed all connections with the group.

It’s now the end of June and on the High On Life SundayFundayz website, the most current content is a May 17 apology that appears to have done little to appease critics. The group’s commercial portal (they have a clothing line) is inaccessible. Their last Tweet and Facebook post is also the May 17 apology. Three of the four (identifiable on the Yellowstone video) now face misdemeanour charges in the US.

A young athlete who catches the world’s eye does so after a decade or more of gruelling preparation, surrounded by a team of professional coaches and advisors. Serendipity doesn’t have a role in this script. The same can’t be said of the Generation Z YouTube personality. What makes them attractive to brands is also what makes them risky. They are genuine, guileless, unfiltered. Their stars may shine brightly, as does Bethany Mota’s today, or they may, as suddenly as they rose, crash back to earth with one simple misstep.

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