The trust between brands and influencers has always been fragile—according to a 2019 study from influencer marketing agency Mediakix, 61% of U.S. marketers had difficulty finding the right influencers for their campaigns, with one in four claiming brand safety was a main challenge. And while influencer marketers have increasingly been able to focus on issues like data accountability, content visibility and fake followers, brand safety has reappeared as a high concern, propelled by cancel culture and influencers catering to what many call the “attention economy.”
Now, the David Dobrik debacle from this past week has the potential to erode the progress influencer marketers have been able to make, and media professionals are left to wrestle with the implications.
The 24-year-old Dobrik—part of the Vlog Squad on YouTube, and known for his pranks that have garnered 26.2 million TikTok followers and 18 million YouTube followers—has created plenty of videos that come across as questionable and problematic. In February, Vlog Squad member Joseth Francois came forth stating that a prank he was involved in was actually sexual assault. In several videos, consent is positioned as something to joke about.
Despite this, brands largely saw Dobrik as a wholesome and harmless entertainer. He was placed as a judge on the Nickelodeon show “America’s Most Musical Family”; won two Kids Choice Awards; partnered with Chipotle around his own burrito and a contest giving away $10,000; and during the pandemic lockdowns, he drove across Los Angeles gifting families money, cars and video game consoles.
However, an investigation from Insider last week shattered Dobrik’s sterling reputation amongst brands. Sources in the report allege Dobrik was engaged in violent and illegal acts around a 2018 YouTube video in which a young woman is seen mingling with Dobrik and the Vlog Squad. One member of Vlog Squad, Dom Zeglaitis, describes having sex with one of the women. That woman told Insider that the incident was actually rape while she was incapacitated with alcohol.
By the weekend, brands including Dollar Shave Club, DoorDash, EA Sports and HelloFresh were cutting ties with the influencer, as Insider first reported. And last week, SXSW pulled a panel featuring Dobrik called “How to Build a More Authentic Online Community.” Dobrik then announced he would step down from the board of Dispo, the photo-sharing app he co-founded in 2019, according to The Information, just after its first campaign came out. On Monday, Alexis Ohanian’s investing fund Seven Seven Six said it would donate its profits from its investment in Dispo to those working with survivors of sexual assault.
"YouTube didn't set out to condition creators to act crazy, but as it moved from click-through to watch time, naturally that led storytellers using the medium to lure viewers, then keep them watching by promising ever-more outlandish tricks, pranks, and other crimes and misdemeanors," says Ashkan Karbasfrooshan, CEO at YouTube-based media brand WatchMojo.
Claire Atkin, co-founder of brand safety consultancy Check My Ads, says David Dobrik’s calamity will be a “serious case study” in future brand safety training sessions with advertisers. “Advertisers are going to be concerned,” says Atkin. “They are already paying attention to influencers as a brand safety risk. Even a thorough vetting process doesn’t remove the possibility of a bombshell like this. What may be a great collaboration today could fall apart tomorrow.”