Social media influencers can be a boon to an organization looking to reach
younger consumers—but they come with a risk.
Such is the case with Swedish YouTube star Felix Kjellberg, known to his
followers as “PewDiePie.” At 27, Kjellberg has amassed a gigantic
following: More than 53 million people are subscribed to his main YouTube
channel, which has roughly 14.7 billion views.
He has attained his influential status by creating videos that show him
playing video games, and his content is often littered with profanity and
adult jokes. That didn’t stop him from nabbing partnerships with YouTube,
Google and Walt Disney Co. (Kjellberg reportedly made more than $15 million
However, Kjellberg seems to have gone too far with his risqué content.
On Jan. 11, he posted a video that many are calling anti-Semitic.
The Washington Post
In the YouTube clip, a pair of South Asian men wearing costume loincloths
held up a banner that read, “DEATH TO ALL JEWS.”
They danced and laughed, while in a separate screen the YouTuber named
Felix Kjellberg (also known by his stage name PewDiePie) covered his mouth
with his hands. “I don’t feel too proud of this, I’m not going to lie,”
Kjellberg said in the Jan. 11 video, which had been viewed more than
6 million times
before its removal.
Kjellberg used Fiverr, a freelancing site, to contact and pay the men $5
for holding the sign.
A week after the incident, the men in the video posted an apology on
YouTube, saying that although they speak and write in English, they didn’t
understand what the sentence meant:
Keep your cool in a crisis with these tips.]
On Sunday, Kjellberg posted the following explanation on
his Tumblr blog
and said he understood “that these jokes were ultimately offensive”:
It came to my attention yesterday that some have been pointing to my videos
and saying that I am giving credibility to the anti-Semitic movement, and
my fans are part of it as well for watching. I don’t want to cite the
sources because I don’t want to give them any more attention.
This originated from a video I made a couple of weeks ago. I was trying to
show how crazy the modern world is, specifically some of the services
available online. I picked something that seemed absurd to me—That people
on Fiverr would say anything for 5 dollars.
I think it’s important to say something and I want to make one thing clear:
I am in no way supporting any kind of hateful attitudes.
I make videos for my audience. I think of the content that I create as
entertainment, and not a place for any serious political commentary. I know
my audience understand that and that is why they come to my channel. Though
this was not my intention, I understand that these jokes were ultimately
As laughable as it is to believe that I might actually endorse these
people, to anyone unsure on my standpoint regarding hate-based groups: No,
I don’t support these people in any way.
Thanks for reading.
On Monday, Maker Studios—a collection of YouTube channels owned by
Disney—announced that it was severing ties with the internet personality.
“Although Felix has created a following by being provocative and
irreverent, he clearly went too far in this case and the resulting videos
are inappropriate. Maker Studios has made the decision to end our
affiliation with him going forward.”
Disney’s decision came not after news of the Jan. 11 video, but rather
following an investigative report that revealed Kjellberg used other
anti-Semitic jokes and images in recent videos.
The Washington Post
Maker Studios dropped Kjellberg on Monday after a Wall Street Journal
highlighted the anti-Semitic sign, as well as eight other videos that
included anti-Jewish jokes or Nazi images.
Kjellberg “showed a clip from a Hitler speech in a Sept. 24 video
criticizing a YouTube policy, posted swastikas drawn by his fans on Oct. 15
and watched a Hitler video in a brown military uniform to conclude a Dec. 8
video,” the Journal
reported. The newspaper also noted that he played the Nazi Party anthem in a Jan.
14 video before he bowed “to swastika in a mock resurrection ritual”; in a
Feb. 5 video, Kjellberg gave a “very brief Nazi salute with a Hitler
voice-over saying ‘Sieg Heil’ and the text ‘Nazi Confirmed.’ ”
On Tuesday, YouTube announced that it, too, was distancing itself from
PewDiePie was set to release the second season of his original series,
Scare PewDiePie, a YouTube Red exclusive that the video giant paid to
produce. The release of that show has now been cancelled, according to a
YouTube spokesperson. PewDiePie is also being removed from the Google
Preferred advertising program, which is reserved for its bigger and more
marketable creators. That will have a direct hit on PewDiePie’s earnings,
as the Preferred program is home to brand advertising that generates more
revenue than typical YouTube advertising.
PewDiePie won’t lose his channel or his more than 50 million subscribers,
and he can continue to monetize them through regular advertising. But
YouTube did remove ads from the videos that set off this uproar, and will
no doubt be keeping a close eye on whatever their provocative poster boy
uploads in the near future.
Neither YouTube nor Disney has made any additional comments about dropping
The incident shows PR and marketing pros the risk they take when partnering
with online personalities—especially those who create content that is often
not family friendly.
It also highlights the tricky balance communicators must maintain to
protect their brand’s reputation. Brand managers must now ask themselves,
“How far is too far?”