What brands can learn from YouTube star David Dobrik's fall from grace
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.”
Influencer agencies typically vet influencers, provide content checks and require influencers to adhere to ethics codes. Several give marketers “brand safety guarantees” where the agency promises to take down content within a window of time if an influencer violates rules. Social platforms have also increasingly granted more control to advertisers when it comes to regulating influencer campaign content. Last November, Instagram gave advertisers the ability to approve and post influencer branded content, previously only a privilege for influencers. Still, experts say more needs to be done.
“Agencies have not done enough to educate both the brand and the influencer on how to ensure the brand's values are clear and the influencer represents these values,” says Ali Mirian, VP of product at data ad services company Inmar Intelligence. “Finding the right brand or influencer fit goes beyond using influencer discovery software and requires deeper understanding of what an influencer stands for.”
While an incident might be impossible to predict, experts say to make sure brands have contingency plans in place, such as having brand safety guidelines that everyone adheres to. “Brand safety guidelines empower brand representatives to act quickly and decisively when these issues come up,” says Akin.
Qianna Smith Bruneteau, founder of the American Influencer Council, says if brands are not already, they should include “morality clauses” or “morals clauses” in their contracts with influencers, no matter the size of their following, especially for deals negotiated for extended periods. Influencers then might include reverse morals clauses that act as a warranty, which allows them to terminate a deal without financial penalties.
“In the digital age, cancel culture is a reality,” says Bruneteau. “Both influencer and brand misconduct can occur after a contract has been signed and executed. To minimize risk, a morals clause can help protect against unforeseen events. Express morals language goes beyond a mere requirement to obey the law and attempts to preempt behavior that will result in public contempt or scorn.”
Of course, even when a brand bows out of a deal because of a morality clause, often the damage is already done and the only thing for a brand to do is disassociate from the influencer as quickly as possible, says Nicole Penn, president at ad agency The EGC Group, adding that influencer agencies have helped because “they have introduced these essential business practices to the influencer world.”
Penn also warns brands or agencies against viewing deals with influencers in the same light as ones with celebrities: “Influencers generally don’t have the type of guidance or career maturity available to them—to know the very real consequences of participating in controversial behavior.”
Contributing: Garett Sloane