Video Killed The Video Star
On the back of vlogger Logan Paul’s spectacular fall from grace, Conor Purcell explores fame, fortune and failure in the YouTube age.
The end, when it came, was both instant and drawn out. The moment Logan Paul, the shiniest of the new breed of YouTube stars, uploaded his video (titled “We found a dead body in the Japanese Suicide Forest”) on December 31st, 2017, his career, as he knew it, was over. That 17 minutes is a slow-motion car crash: frame upon frame of of poor choices and ill-advised commentary from a 22-year-old for whom, until then, the answer had always been ‘yes.’
He had decided to spend the night (illegally) camping at Aokigahara Forest at the base of Mt Fuji. The forest is infamous in Japan as a place where the suicidal take their own lives. Within a few minutes of entering the forest, Logan sees a body hanging from a tree. Most ordinary people would have, at that stage, turned the camera off. But Logan Paul didn’t get where he is by being normal.
He keeps the camera rolling, even zooming in on the body. He veers between shock, excitement (think of the views!) and confusion. That he spent the video describing how the suicide of a stranger made him feel was as inevitable as it was tone deaf. Logan composes himself enough to remind his viewers to subscribe. The reaction was swift. YouTube took the video down and kicked him out of its Google Preferred programme, which is reserved for “high-quality content” that advertisers can trust. Within hours hundreds of videos were uploaded to YouTube slating Logan. Even mainstream stars such as Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul criticised him. More recently YouTube has suspended ads on Logan’s channel, cutting off a major source of his revenue.
The fact that Logan Paul had a career at all may be a mystery to many, but the figures don’t lie. This is a man who made more than a million dollars a month last year. He has more than 16.7 million subscribers and his videos routinely get more than 10 million views. Once you understand the modern vlogger, you understand that for them, creating and uploading videos is everything. You can’t take a day off. You can’t not be filming. Life is reduced to a series of metrics: views, likes, shares and comments. These are the lifeblood of the vlogger. So, when Logan Paul entered the Aokigahara Forest, there was nothing else he could have done. To not film that dead man would have been unthinkable. He is Logan Paul and this is what he does. He has built his YouTube following by sharing everything that happens to him. His followers expect it, his advertisers expect it, the brand expects it. So, that’s what Logan Paul did. He filmed the body of a Japanese man who had not long before, committed suicide. “His hands are purple,” he blurted, before telling his viewers that “suicide is not the answer.”
Later in the car park, he tells us that this is one of the “top five craziest things I’ve ever experienced in my life.” Later again, he tells viewers to subscribe. While that attempt to capitalise on a man’s suicide saw Logan criticised in the media, it should have come as no surprise.
Welcome to the brave new world of entertainment. This is a world where a six-year-old (RyanToysReview) unboxing toys can build up a multi-million-dollar business. Where a Swedish man (PewDiePie) recording himself commentating on video games can earn $12 million a year. The key word in this new era is authenticity. Children and teenagers are, for the first time, free from the gatekeepers that traditionally decided what they could and couldn’t watch. Now, with increasing broadband speeds, the ubiquity of smartphones and the DIY ethos of YouTube where anyone can upload a video, content creators can reach their audience quicker and easier than ever before. That’s not to say this new breed of creators have ignored the tactics that TV, and particularly, music videos have used for years. Vloggers use many of the same techniques you will know from MTV: fast jump cuts, garish graphics, an ironic tone — essentially convincing the viewer it’s them and the blogger against the world. Part music video, part Jackass episode, part reality TV show.
Three weeks after Logan Paul’s controversial video, he was back on YouTube. This followed a hastily arranged mea culpa tour of the mainstream media (including an appearance on Good Morning America). What his fans were waiting for was his reappearance on YouTube, and three weeks is an eon in YouTube Land. This was Logan 2.0. The vlogger as white knight, vlogger as doe-eyed apologetic, mortified for the bad thing he has done. To be fair, he promised to donate $1 million to suicide awareness, although the cynical among us might put that down to damage limitation. And it is easy to be cynical about this, too easy probably.
But given that Paul makes money from the number of views these videos get (his suicide-awareness video has garnered more than 26 million of them), it’s hard not to be sceptical. One scene shows Logan sitting on a rock, feet in a stream as he pets a dog while his voiceover talks about “learning to be compassionate.” Indeed, for all the DIY aesthetic of his content, his comeback video was as carefully constructed as any politician’s. Logan is represented by Creative Artists Agency (CAA), the agency that reinvented what a Hollywood agent was when it was set up in 1985 by five former William Morris Agents. At the ITP Live Influencer Conference in Dubai last year, Paul’s agent, Paul Cazers, outlined his role in building the brand. “We are sales agents. We’re kicking down the door, telling people why they should work with Logan Paul.”
This is a world where brand identity is paramount. In Logan’s case, it’s that of an outsider, a maverick — someone who plays by his own rules. That edgy outsider status becomes untenable when his entire revenue stream is dependent on huge global brands continuing to work with him, from YouTube to Walmart. Much as Logan and the other vloggers would like us to believe they are anarchic, one-man operations, the reality is that their personas are as carefully manufactured as any Hollywood star.
If Logan’s comeback video comeback video was hard, it was at least clear what tone he needed to convey. His next video (posted 10 days later) was far trickier. While his first video was directed towards the brands that supported him, his next video was directed at his fans. And let’s face it, they don’t want a neutered, constantly apologetic, half-formed Logan Paul. It’s a thin line between being apologetic and retaining the brash demeanour that has seen him gain millions of fans. Be too glib about the controversy and he risks losing even more sponsors. Be too apologetic and he risks alienating his fans. Brands, unsurprisingly, salivate at the prospect of reaching the demographics that these vloggers broadcast to. And this, ultimately, is what it’s about: vloggers selling eyeballs to brands. As much as the vloggers would have you believe is all about the ‘lolz’, it’s not; it’s all about the money.
This is a world where to be cool means to purchase ‘merch’; where nailing your colours to your favourite vlogger’s mast means buying their product. And, watch even a fraction of the videos that the top vloggers produce and you will realise how every video is driven towards convincing the viewer to buy something. Paul, of course, sells ‘merch’ — his Maverick clothing line includes everything from a trucker hat ($30, sold out) to a pink two-tone hoodie ($55). This isn’t mere clothing, however, this is a movement. Where the mere act of purchasing a T-shirt or a backpack makes you part of Team Logan. Logan has built up his audience, and now his job is to find ways to extract money from them.
It’s also his job to leverage that fame into other gigs. He acts (although his latest film, The Thinning, has been put on hold for now), he makes music (his last video ‘Outta My Hair’ was released in October and has racked up more than 41 million views). There is big money to be made here. According to Forbes, Logan made $12.5 million in 2017. About a quarter of that came from YouTube ads, while he also makes $150,000 per Facebook post and $80,000 per Instagram post. It doesn’t matter that Logan is not a particularly good actor, or performer, or clothes designer; all that matters is that he connects with a demographic that brands want access to.
That is not going to change, no matter how many controversies erupt. And there have been some And there have been some spectacular ones. The aforementioned PewDiePie was caught making racial slurs in one of his videos. Then there was DaddyoFive/MommyoFive, a husband and wife blogging team, who lost custody of their children (all five of them), after their YouTube ‘pranks’ were judged to have veered into child abuse. And then there was a Minnesota couple (Pedro and Perez) who vlogged as La MonaLisa. Pedro convinced Perez to shoot him at point-blank range, believing a book he held in front of his chest would catch the bullet. It didn’t, and Pedro died. Perez is now facing a prison sentence after being charged with second-degree manslaughter.
We may look back at this early-model YouTube landscape as some sort of Wild West, unregulated and unpredictable. Maybe Vlogger 2.0, will be as controlled and clean cut as your average K-Pop star, and we will look back wistfully at the likes of Logan Paul. Whatever the new breed of YouTube star looks like, there is no doubt they are here to stay… for the ‘lolz’.
This article first appeared in the March 2018 issue of Esquire Middle East.