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 last year.)
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.
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:
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 offensive.
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.
A representative told Variety:
“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 reported:
Maker Studios dropped Kjellberg on Monday after a Wall Street Journal investigation 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 Kjellberg.
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 PewDiePie.
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?”