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[Digital Simplicity] Paid advertisements disguised as ‘honest’ reviews on YouTube


Fashion stylist Han Hye-yeon and singer Kang Min-kyung recently came under a storm of criticism for their failure to reveal that what they promote on their YouTube channels are actually product placements, or PPL.

At a time when leading YouTube stars rake in tons of money through promotional events sponsored by high-profile advertisers, some reckon the outpouring of public anger against Han and Kang might have gone too far.

However, a closer look at what really happened reveals the flaw in the overall digital ecosystem that is outsmarting the terribly slow-paced regulators and market watchers.

Han, one of the most sought-after fashion celebrities these days, gained fame on TV and brought her influence to YouTube channel. Her signature move was her “honest” reviews and recommendations since she bought the products with her own money, a practice that is called “nae-don-nae-san” in Korean.

Han starts her YouTube video with a peculiar greeting: “Hello, babies.” Indeed, many of the subscribers who are innocent like babies took her words at face value and bought what she recommended since her reviews appeared trustworthy, free of commercial sponsorships or whatsoever. At least, that’s what they wanted to believe, and Han’s soaring popularity easily justified such fantasy.

But the truth was that some of Han’s videos turned out to be conventional PPL projects, and she took profits out of the scheme that misled viewers by stressing the concept of “nae-don-nae-san.”

Under the local regulations, if a YouTube video is commercially sponsored, a “paid advertisement” mark should be displayed when the video starts. But some of Han’s videos haven’t displayed such notices, a fact that fuels speculation that she deliberately disguised her PPL videos as honest reviews.

Han uploaded what is called an “apology video,” in which she, clad in not-so-fashionable dark clothes, said she felt sorry about what happened. But she didn’t say she’d quit engaging in such promotional activities. After all, too much money is at stake, as YouTube is emerging as the most powerful marketing channel to sell products directly to consumers.

Even though Han issued an apology, she couldn’t stop the disillusioned viewers from unsubscribing from the channel, which lost some 60,000 subscribers in just two days after the incident broke out.

Kang Min-kyung, a member of the duo Davichi, also got entangled in the dispute as some products featured in her videos were not properly identified as sponsored items.

In response to the fiery criticism, Kang claimed one of the underwear products she promoted in her video was originally not sponsored. The company behind the underwear brand contacted her after the video came out and asked for using her video in its commercial, which she accepted. But Kang said she did not place an advertisement disclaimer in the video in question since she feared she might “lose the trust of her subscribers.”

Ironically, her move disappointed many of her faithful fans. In her apology posted on her YouTube channel, she did not put the advertisement mark for bags and shoes in her videos because she just put them on and did not reveal her views about them. Kang added that she never used the expression “nae-don-nae-san” in her video.

Kang’s channel belatedly included an advertisement notice in the related videos and shut down the comment section altogether, after struggling to handle an influx of negative comments following the revelation.

In fact, there are a number of YouTube stars who, deliberately or incidentally, fail to notify viewers that the products they are reviewing positively are actually paid advertisements.

Since YouTube is flooded with videos based on paid advertisements, it is increasingly difficult to see a genuinely honest review. That’s why “nae-don-nae-san” phrase has drawn attention from viewers yearning for accurate information about the products they consider buying.

In recent months, however, there are so many reviews that are purportedly honest and accurate under the hashtag of “nae-don-nae-san” -- so much so that viewers have become skeptical about product reviews in general.

This is regrettable. Making money out of PPL on YouTube is not a sin. In the era of surging fake content on YouTube, we need more honest reviews, as long as they are properly identified as paid advertisements.

By Yang Sung-jin (insight@heraldcorp.com)

Yang Sung-jin is the multimedia editor of The Korea Herald. -- Ed.
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