It takes a little while to figure out the message of popular YouTuber Jake Paul’s song, “All I Want For Christmas.” “Buy dat merch,” he sings. What could he possibly mean? “Buy dat merch,” he continues. Like a great Dylan song, the meaning is elusive and difficult to discern. “Buy dat merch. Buy dat merch. Buy dat merch. Buy dat merch. Buy dat merch.”
By the seventh mention you might get it. If not, the line in the song in which he literally spells out the URL you need to get to his site will probably clue you in.
Forget what you’ve heard about ad rates on YouTube — the action is now all happening in the videos themselves. YouTube is turning into giant merchandise-plugging factory, where old vlogger standbys like confessionals, stunts, and pranks are rapidly and shamelessly being shoved out in favor of endless plugs for merch. And why not? It’s become almost impossible to make money on YouTube otherwise.
As Bloomberg reported back in February, even successful YouTubers can struggle to make a wage from advertising revenue alone, and so rely on sponsorships, brand deals and merchandise sales for income. Merchandise is big business. Fanjoy, an American e-commerce company which handles merch sales for Jake Paul and other big YouTubers including Casey Neistat, shipped 800,000 items in the first 11-and-a-half months of 2017, according to The Daily Beast. Others have created their own line of merchandise independently, or through other retailers.
Felix “PewDiePie” Kjellberg recently released a new line of clothing, Tsuki, which has been criticized for its high prices. A white and pink cotton-polyester blend hoodie embroidered with a small logo costs $100; a pink t-shirt stitched with the same logo costs $56. Both sold out within days of release. Smaller YouTubers, whose merch no one in their right mind should want to buy, are setting up their own merch lines in a futile attempt to claw back revenue they’ve lost through YouTube’s new rules on which channels get monetized.
And then there are the Paul brothers. Vloggers Jake and Logan Paul, who have more than 40 million subscribers between them, each have their own line of branded merchandise, which they mention frequently in their videos. Both have completely useless “merch stores” in their own homes. Fans can’t visit. There don’t appear to be working checkouts at the “stores”. A cursory glance indicates the merch there isn’t always tagged. They do, however, prove useful when either wants to mention their new line of items — always dropping now, always soon to sell out — to their audience. They’re like modern-day QVC studios: all artifice, but designed to drive you to a purchase.
Jake Paul even once hired out a billboard on Melrose Avenue for the ultimate YouTube one-two punch: a sick prank on his brother, and a plug for his online shop. Logan Paul went one better, attaining a rare YouTube trifecta: by sending his own merch across the Atlantic for a prank on UK YouTuber KSI, he also managed to plug the offline boxing match he’s fighting against the Brit in August.
Earlier this month, the younger Paul brother unveiled a custom “merch truck”, a converted military vehicle that can transform into a mobile merch store (which may be useful for the 21-date tour Paul and his Team 10 band of YouTubers are going to embark on this summer). No opportunity is lost to plug the merch: the URL to Paul’s Fanjoy store is printed on each of the truck’s tires, while a 12-barrel CO2 gun is mounted to the top of the vehicle to shoot merch at fans.
We innately know that we are being shilled to by the Paul brothers. But as any pseudo-scientist knows, quantitative data is better than qualitative hunches. So I undertook an exclusive analysis (read: no one else was stupid enough to do so) of 50 videos uploaded to YouTube by Jake and Logan Paul in February and March — more than six hours of footage in all.
In the 50 videos I watched, the brothers called on their viewers to buy their products 195 times. I was upsold on overpriced clothing (on offer at the Paul brothers’ online shops are $28 t-shirts, $42 shorts, hoodies and backpacks at $54.95, and a Jake Paul windbreaker pullover for $90) once every 142 seconds. (Their merch-plugging isn’t inescapable — over the span of three videos uploaded in the aftermath of the Parkland school shooting, including the 22-minute documentary in which he interviews Marco Rubio, Paul manages to mention his Fanjoy site only once.)
“So what?”, you may ask. YouTubers mention their merch; they want to earn money. There’s a clue in another line of Jake Paul’s paean to his own merch: “Go tell your momma, she gotta buy it all.” In a survey of British children aged 7-16 conducted by Childwise, a research company, the Paul brothers took up two of the children’s three favourite YouTubers. Unlike on traditional TV, where the FCC limits the amount of advertising children under the age of 12 can be exposed to — 10.5 minutes per hour on weekends, and 12 minutes per hour during the week — YouTube is a free-for-all.
The platform’s general tightening of the rules around who exactly can make money and how means that creators are resorting to increasingly desperate ways to attract eyeballs. Feeding the algorithm with new content on a daily basis isn’t easy, and being able to fill half your video with ready-made, repeatable catchphrases that also help diversify your revenue streams, makes sense. In fact, the insistent, endless plugging of merch might be the least offensive part of modern-day YouTube, where creators are hinting at incest and child pornography in their videos to lure in viewers.
That doesn’t mean that everyone on YouTube is embracing the turn to merch. H3H3 Productions’ Ethan Klein has been outspoken in his criticism of the Paul’s merch-selling machine. “They know exactly who they’re marketing to,” he said on a podcast episode looking at “Logan and Jake Paul’s predatory merch machine”. That said, people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw overpriced pop sockets: H3H3 has its own merch line, too.