Last time we talked about Patreon, patronage and how and when an artist owes something to those who keep their lights on. Today we’re going to talk about sponsorships, trust and forced positivity but with the ethical dubiousness of money behind it.
This actually started innocently enough. I was watching a GameTheorists video on Valerian and the City of One Thousand Planets. As a hipster sci-fi person, I was excited to talk about Valerian considering that I’m probably 1 of 5 Americans that read the comic and knew that it basically inspired all of modern sci-fi. Everyone has borrowed from it, Star Wars, Star Trek, basically everyone owes their sci-fi start to Valerian. And when I started the video, I was happy to see MatPat bring up all those points and comment on them. And then he mentioned he was sponsored by the movie Valerian. My heart sank. Suddenly, all the ethos of what he was saying was colored with the evil tint of greed. Even in his most recent video that was blatantly sponsored by Disney, it still felt hollow because the premise and title were interesting. Now to know that he’s only doing it because he got paid somehow left me feeling betrayed and crestfallen.
And MatPat isn’t the only Youtuber I’ve noticed that will “critique” or “comment” on a film only after being paid to do so. Andre “The Black Nerd” has more than once reviewed movies and done special promotions with several companies and even theaters that often seem to make all the movies he sees a little less bad. And while I have no issues with CinemaSins being sponsored by BlueApron and NatureBox (because those sponsorships are usually unintrusive to the content) and I quietly tolerate Lindsay Ellis flaunting her Patreon (her being sponsored is also often not intrusive to her content). But where I take issue is when being paid for something makes you think something is better than what it is and all under the guise of more valid criticism.
But it’s also important to comment on the type of “critic”, critic or Youtuber. It’s usually the non-instrusive ones that get the more lucrative deals. MatPat’s pretty unoffensive to most and he’s easy to work with and has a wide audience. He’s kind, sort of funny and he’s positive. He isn’t a CinemaSins or Nostalgia Critic who made their mark by being cynical, curt and vulgar (I don’t say any of these things negatively, I love these channels.).
In my first forced positivity post, I mentioned The Talking Dead, a show hosted by Chris Hardwick about the very popular TV show and sometimes maligned comic book The Walking Dead. The talk show after the show is paid for by AMC (the people behind the zombie TV show) and because of that, almost every episode has to say how great The Walking Dead is. When I lamented this fact, Carlos rather bluntly said: “Well, yeah. Can’t talk bad about a show that pays you to put on a show.” And really, that was an understood for me. I understood the why but that didn’t mean I had to be happy about it.
And it frustrates me even more when I have to watch a personality I love change and adapt to being more “user-friendly”. Chris Hardwick, if you can hear me, come back to us. You have sold your soul for money. You too, Kevin Smith. We need you. We need voices of dissonance in our community once more.
Being paid to say nice things isn’t new. I work in advertising. I create paid sponsor content. I live in a world where you have to casually segway a brand sponsorship into an informative video or write an article that’s really meant to sell you something. I learned and perfected how to craft a message, find an image and hone down an audience. I know that being paid to say nice things is not a new and marvel concept. But in traditional advertising, a spade is a spade. An ad’s an ad. It’s clear when something is sponsored. But when marketing is insidious (and even I as a marketer am not fond/proud of) are when ads hide. We’ve all seen a tutorial that’s at the end tacked on that it was paid for by Samsung. And the idea of a paid sponsorship that’s a hidden one or content that’s really an ad has been a struggle for social media platforms and users. And if the FDA and FCC lawsuits have been any indicator: the idea of being #sponsored on social media is a slippery slope.
It started with the whole influx of “influencer” marketing. “Celebrities” would gush about a product of God knows what-origin and then their legions of followers would then also support the product of God knows what-origin. What isn’t shown or talked about is how much the makers of the product pay to have this glowing endorsement or why it does such great things for a celebrity’s whose only job is to be beautiful and thin and stand there under ring lights that make everyone look better. And when a normal consumer wishes to complain, sue or even try to dismiss some of the claims of how charcoal water can cure cancer or something, the company simply says “The celebrity was not paid to say those things and you didn’t have to buy our product.” despite how often it’s shown in Instagram feeds and Twitter timelines. The celebrity doesn’t take any responsibility for any damage done by the product they were so proudly sharing. Remember, they won’t paid to do this. They just received 5 cases of kale cleanse. That isn’t payment, right?
And it’s funny that all of this is happening now. I’m from an era where shoehorned in sponsorships paid the bills and I think it’s that cynicism and skepticism that so fundamentally turns me off on paid sponsored content. We are surrounded by ads and I say that as a person who makes those ads possible. So it’s seductive to see something that looks like think piece, feels like a social commentary but then is later revealed to be something sponsored by a TV show or soda company and why that’s so insidious and horrifying. What is news anymore? What is an ad anymore? Is it all just an ad?
I’m with a majority of watchers and users of things: transparent advertising makes me very happy. When an ad’s an ad, that’s fine. And now with the rise of #ad and #sponsored, things are getting a little more transparent and it’s easier to see the man behind the wizard. And while I understand not wanting to piss in your own stew pot, criticism and loving antagonism made fandoms, communities and the world. The positivity for hire is exhausting and its at times seedy nature makes it even more tiresome and dishonest. Let’s be honest about when an ad’s an ad. Let’s call a spade a spade. And let’s keep criticism free of the shackles of currency.