Let's Discuss: The Online Beauty Community, Ethics, and Other Grievances

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Settle in with a snack and a drink--this is a long one. As per usual, all comments and participation are highly encouraged, especially as today's subject is controversial. I'm fully aware that I make some generalizations here, and that there are exceptions, but in the grand scheme of things, I think the generalizations hold true. Whether you agree with me or not, I'd love to hear from you!

I've had this blog and been a small and amateurish part of the online beauty community for almost three years now, but have been watching YouTube beauty girls, and reading blogs for a lot longer than that. I started engaging online probably around 2006/2007, and didn't really have any complaints back then. But as the business of beauty vlogging and blogging has completely taken off in the past few years (literally going from a hobby to a business), I've had more and more issues with the community.

In those early days, no one really did sponsored posts/videos, no one even knew what an affiliate link was, and certainly no vlogger or blogger had an agent. The only things from that time that are still relevant are the use of advertising and companies sending free product for consideration.

From the good days--Laura of lollipop26! Loving her blog, but still missing her videos!  

The problem

For the record, I don't think there's anything at all wrong with making money off of your hobby. Being able to turn your YouTube videos or blog into your own business is one of the best things about the Internet. (And I confess, it's an idea I've been entertaining with my own blog as well). But no one can deny that money complicates things, and over the last eight-ten years or so, the general atmosphere of the online beauty community has changed so dramatically that sometimes I find myself reading old blogs and watching old videos for a taste of the good days. Money has changed the field from a fun side-hobby to a lucrative business, and the impact is clear and worrisome.

I keep referencing my problems with the "online community", when really my objections are mostly with the YouTube beauty community. I don't read as many beauty blogs as I used to (more of a lack of time issue than anything else), but while I have seen the same transformation from hobby to business there, I'm generally much happier with the way bloggers have made that change. I know that blogs aren't as profitable as videos just by the nature of the difference in media, so I'm more forgiving of bloggers who do the odd sponsored post or partnership than of vloggers who do the same thing. My feelings on people who do sponsored posts or videos vary based on the individual, but I still feel like I can trust bloggers much more.

There are a few reasons for this.

1. There is something stronger about textual content, and I feel the truth is much more accessible in the written word. That is also true in terms of what bloggers and vloggers must report to the FTC. We all know that in videos, they have to list what items were sent or gifted, and whether or not the video is sponsored. Bloggers have to do the same, but whereas you have to click the description box and do a bit of looking for that information on a video, it tends to be much more out there and open on a blog post.

2. The breakdown of entertaining beauty and informative beauty. Whereas a vlogger can post an inevitably extremely popular Get Ready with Me video (which, for the record, I love watching) that shows beauty products but conveys little information on them, a blogger can't do that to the same extent. Sure, you can post a picture of your makeup/hair products for that day, but it will look strange without text, and in any case, it'll never get as many views as a Get Ready with Me video. Bloggers, just by the form of their media, are almost bound to provide real information.

(The very worst manifestation of views > content, by the way, is the shower video. I do not need to/want to know how you take a shower).

There was a time when YouTubers were more about informative beauty than beauty as entertainment, and now it's almost been totally reversed. Or, even worse, videos that try to be informative are so cluttered with products placement or full-on ads, that only one thing crosses my mind...

I don't believe you.

Call me cynical, but when the same beauty product gets rave reviews from a whole bunch of YouTubers (some of whom are also regularly sent makeup from that company), I don't trust the glowing review they give. It's gotten to the point now that when I see the third or fourth video on my feed praising, the "first gel liner pen" (which is not at all true, and actually happens to be a lousy eyeliner) that has tons of bad reviews elsewhere, my gut reaction is to unsubscribe. Or, sometimes an attempt at good PR goes totally wrong, and after seeing the same product featured in six different people's favorites videos (so help me God if I see another NuMe curling iron...), it makes me not want to try anything from that company.

Been a fan of Emily Eddington of Beauty Broadcast from the start!

As someone just entering the workforce and seeing the challenges of it, I completely understand that these ladies are trying to build their own real, profitable businesses, and that will require some sacrifices. I just wish (most of them) went about it in better ways without insulting or alienating their viewers. There are people I've been watching for years, whose growth I've seen and helped, and I'm happy and incredibly proud of how well they've done (looking at you, EmilyNoel83!). But the transition from YouTuber to "brand" (ugh, I hate that word) has been a messy and uncomfortable move for so many.

Sometimes on videos of YouTubers who have been around for years and have become successful, you'll see comments like, "I miss the old [name of YouTube person here]" or, "I miss your old videos". Those commenters are referring to the way that person has expanded their brand, and the YouTube beauty community I know has more examples of bad brand-building than good.

What can we do?

I have no experience in "brand-building" (aren't you glad you're reading a post from a veritable professional?), so I can only say what I, as a long-time viewer, like and don't.

Good, convincing brand-building is coming out with your own makeup, brush, lip gloss and nail polish line--but only if what you're putting out there is quality product. Otherwise, by putting out crappy product that blatantly tries to exploit your position, you ultimately end up diminishing your authority as a beauty person. Smart brand-building is expanding your videos and viewers by collaborating with other YouTubers, or even more popular channels. Or, creating content that broadens what you usually cover without losing direction.  

Absolutely adore the Pixiwoo gals and their Real Techniques brushes

I don't want to give examples of bad brand-building, because bashing anyone in particular is not what this post is about. But the bad, alienating kind of brand-building focuses more on turning the individual into a celebrity than on expanding the content that person produces. 

Where good brand-building is logical and coherent, bad brand-building is random: commercials or product launches that have nothing to do with that person's content, or my very favorite example from the whole of YouTube, "writing" a book. (There are a few people that last example could apply to, don't jump all over me). The "book thing" in particular just kills me as I don't know what's more depressing about the situation: blatantly claiming you wrote a book when you didn't, or most of your viewers not knowing what a ghost writer is.

These women are certainly entitled to run their channels and businesses as they see fit. But, I do think there are a few ways for us, the viewer, to have a better idea if we're being blatantly misled.

The description box disclaimer is a start. Our beauty girls need to report if any product mentioned was sent for consideration by a company, or if the video is sponsored. But we need more. Fairly frequently, I see YouTubers mention partnerships or ambassadorships in description boxes, but what does that even mean? Obviously, there's some money headed toward the YouTuber, but what are the terms of the contract? Is this video an ad, is it sponsored, is it showing products that person typically wouldn't use, or all of the above? I'm not asking for a full tax return, but the disclaimers these people are held to just don't feel like enough. If they make their income off of our attention, then don't we have a right to understand a bit more about their business transactions, especially if we feel we're being misled?

Could this success and growth be beneficial?

I know I'm not the only person out there feeling dissatisfied with the beauty community, but am I crazy to think there are ways for these girls to become successful entrepreneurs without making some uncomfortable sacrifices? Business means profit, and if your channel/blog hugely profits by signing up with a larger company, wouldn't you do it? I understand that these deals are the practical decisions to make in business, so why does the jab of disloyalty feel so personal? Am I even allowed to feel snubbed by the decisions someone makes to expand their work?

Does business justify everything, Michael?

Doesn't the entire community benefit by these vloggers and bloggers becoming successful?

You could argue that people becoming successful in this medium and field benefits the community as a whole, even the audiences. Zoe (Zoella on YT) was just featured in Lunch with the FT and as someone who's been reading the column since I was fifteen, I squealed when I saw it. I'm not someone who follows her closely, but the feature is still a huge deal--not just for Zoe, but for the whole YouTube community. 

This recognition of the value of new generation bloggers and vloggers opens doors for content creators in general, and helps strengthen and validate the online creative world as a whole. But at what cost to the general culture and philosophies of the community?

Where do we land?

I'm obviously in quite a few minds where this complicated topic is concerned, and have more questions than answers. That's okay, as I'm hoping some of you in the comments will pick up this discussion thread and roll with it. But here's my bottom line:

There are definite benefits and drawbacks to the online beauty community becoming business-oriented. I can't say either way if the positives or negatives come out on top, but what I am sure of is that there needs to be more disclosure where money is exchanged. Or, at the very least, better education for the masses in terms of exactly what the existing rules mean and how they affect both the blogger/vlogger and the viewers. 

I love this online beauty club that's been established, not in the least because it allowed me to create the very blog you're reading. Before I even started my blog, this incredible collective of bloggers and vloggers provided me with an outlet to something I loved but none of my friends/family really understood. It's because I'm so fond of these girls from years of watching them that I still follow and support a good chunk of them. 

The issue here is how they have handled their businesses, which to me smacks of compromise.

Please sound off in the comments below--I'd love to hear from you! Do you think I'm overreacting? In your experience, is the online beauty community evolving for the better or for the worse? Should we agree to forgive potentially shady transactions of money if it means a stronger, larger collective?

Hope you're well! Post/pictures of a week with the Sally Hansen Miracle Gel will be up Friday!

*Photo credit: youtube.com, beautybroadcast.net, boots.com and ramlijohn.com respectively.


  1. Overreacting? Are you kidding? Finally, someone speaks up!

    I have no patience, no time and no interest for PR pieces disguised as true commentary. There's a huge loss of integrity in the online community.

    How many poor reviews or evaluations do you read/view on products supplied 'for consideration' or sponsored by a product company. It's the same as reading reviews on a product's web site - remarkable how most are 4 or 5 stars.

    There is a certain amount of journalistic integrity I require which is why I religiously read your blog and almost no others.

    Even Temptalia, who I truly respect is becoming almost unreadable- all the ads for BMW and Skinny Cow running across the middle of the page- yikes!

    If your are 'sponsored' say so up front, loud and clear. I don't have an issue with entrepreneurial endeavors, but I do have a problem with infomercials disguised as independent assessment.

    Which brings me to you-I am twice your age and almost the opposite of you in my skin, etc. but you are the blog I rely on. Why? Because your opinion is reliable, independent and well thought out.

    Now, get back to it!

    1. Aw, thank you so much!

      I fluctuate between thinking I'm overreacting regarding the way people decide to run their business, and feeling really frustrated by the turn the community as a whole has taken.

      I agree, I hate when people try and hide that a post or video is sponsored (some of them even bury it in their video description boxes) but it almost feels worse when they rave about a shoddy product that was sent.

      I understand trying to build a relationship with a brand/PR reps, but there really are better ways of going about it.

      Thank you again for the lovely compliments and encouragement--I'll be back to it tomorrow!

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  3. I'm a little late chiming in here but you're not overreacting, not by a long shot. What you've stated here, you've stated in a very fair and objective manner, far more politely than most would.

    The beauty community has drastically changed in regards to YouTube. There are still honest and forthright bloggers to be found, but a huge chunk of videos are nothing more than ads and paid endorsements and sometimes (let's get real here, a LOT of times) the "guru's" aren't very forthcoming about being sponsored. I don't believe someone claiming their favorite brand of brushes, curling iron, or teeth whitening system -- when they have an affiliate link to that same brand in their info. section. It shadows their credibility whether they want to acknowledge it or not. I don't believe that four, five (sometimes seven and eight) "guru's" all happen to discover, purchase and LOVE the same product at the exact same time when none of them have ever mentioned said product before.

    I'm an adult. I can see through this nonsense and unsubscribe. But the main demographic for beauty videos are girls and young women aged nine to sixteen. Most twelve year old girls subscribe to more of the "guru's" than I do and young ladies that age are impressionable and sometimes naive. Shilling whatever flat iron or tooth whitener and acting like it's the best thing since sliced bread, and knowing that your young viewers are the ones who will do their best to acquire it -- that isn't a business, it's a cruel joke and greedy practice.

    I realize that I sound harsh here but I think I'm overly annoyed and at wit's end because the latest piece of transparency comes in the form of a "guru" actually posting a video about self confidence and self acceptance, then halfway through said video, she sloppily transitions into a flimsy discussion about plastic surgery -- and how she just happens to know a great plastic surgeon that she just met (her manager's plastic surgeon) and how you can "tweet" your questions about self confidence to him. Shameful. It's nothing short of shameful.

    And on that note, I've rambled here far too long and come off as belligerent which I do apologize for (I'm usually pleasant, swear!). But I applaud your post and the tact with which you've expressed things.

    1. Glad to hear from you, Miss J! I don't think you're being belligerent or unpleasant at all--in fact, one of my biggest concerns about the turn the online beauty community has taken has to do with the impressionable young girls watching.

      I have two little (they're 12, so not so little anymore!) cousins, and they're really into beauty guru videos, and it's upsetting for me to suddenly hear them start talking about how they want smokey eyes and "need" foundation--when they both have beautifully baby-smooth skin. In my case, it's not actually the peddling of overpriced and overrated hair tools and makeup products towards these young girls that bothers me the most (though it still bothers me). It's usually videos on life advice, or boys, or on daily routines that make no mention of school or studying or the important stuff. A YouTuber giving advice on boys who says something like "just be comfortable and yourself" (which is a great message) but who also piles on makeup and spends hours on her hair and shows that process in getting ready videos might confuse, say, a 12-year-old.

      Obviously, if a girl wants to pile on the makeup and do her hair nicely (I sometimes do!), any and everyone wishing so should do it--different strokes for different folks! I suppose I just don't like the idea of certain beauty gurus playing at being role models/lifestyle advocates for young girls, when apart from being good at hair/makeup, I don't see what makes them qualified to be such.

      As for affiliate links, I actually don't have an opinion on them! I don't like the idea of making money off of people buying something, but if you're the one who recommended it, and are looking to build your own business, I admit that they do kind of make sense. I just don't quite know how I feel about them yet.

      Look who's belligerent now! =)