To begin 2019, YouTubers Jake Paul and Brian “RiceGum” Le posted sponsored videos that promote Mystery Brand, a shady website where users pay different amounts of money for real-life loot boxes.
The videos – which The Verge reports earned Paul and Le $140,000 apiece – show the YouTubers promoting the gambling service to their followers. Both videos are only specifically announced as paid advertisements in the video descriptions.
In the glorified advertisements, Paul and Le spend money on numerous mystery boxes in an attempt to win the best prizes. Each mystery box claims to provide specific items under different product categories.
Some are said to include items from Apple and Sony, while others are just teeming with the latest fashion from Supreme and HYPE. One even offers a US$25 million house in the Hollywood hills. Are your alarm bells ringing yet?
‘Players’ can spend anywhere from $12.99 to $100 on opening individual loot boxes. As with most gambling services, the more money you pay, the greater ‘chance’ you have of winning the best products.
In the videos, Paul and Le appear to spend thousands of dollars on mystery boxes and win all sorts of prizes, from AirPods, an iPhone XS and an Apple Watch to Converse sneakers and limited-edition Adidas NMDs valued at over $2,000.
Paul’s video is titled, “I Spent $5,000 on MYSTERY BOXES & You WONT Believe WHAT I GOT (Insane)” and Le’s is simply, “How I got AirPods For $4”. During both videos, Paul and Le talk about how “fun”, “dope” and “good value” the website is. They somehow manage to keep straight faces while doing so.
It gets worse. Le promotes how Mystery Brand allows you to sell back items and actually make money off the site. Le buys loot boxes, sells back items and “makes profit”. At the start of the video his account has around $3,000, but after all the selling back, his final balance is $16,000. In Le’s words, “you can’t lose!”
Le suggests to his over 10 million subscribers – many of who are young teenagers – that not only does Mystery Brand give you cool items, but you can actually come out on top. He says as much at the end of his video:
“Here’s the thing man. I got some fidget spinners, I got some t-shirts, y’know, whatever. I sold them back. But you also get, like shoes and cool stuff, so like I’m glad that I did this man.”
Through both videos, Paul and Le sent their followers the message that gambling isn’t risky, it’s fun. It’s something that should be approached recklessly by spending thousands of dollars to get cool stuff. At one point, Paul even gets excited about spending $1,000 to receive an Apple Watch that retails for around $350.
By the time any sane adult had gotten wind of the videos, each of them already had well over 1,000,000 views. Who knows how many people tried – and perhaps scammed by – the service in that period?
Several days after Paul’s video was uploaded, I came across a video by H3H3 Productions about how Jake Paul and RiceGum were promoting gambling to children. It now has 3.5 million views – more than both Paul and Le’s original videos combined, which is an encouraging sign.
YouTubers Ethan Klein, Kavos and PewDiePie have since admonished the videos, particularly due to the young fanbase that Paul and Le both have.
“What they’re displaying is not attainable in the way that they say it is,” said PewDiePie in his video.
PewDiePie also revealed that both he and numerous other prominent YouTubers were offered large fees to promote the dodgy service. Most had the moral fortitude – or smarts – to decline.
“Seeing known YouTubers promoting something like this that is known to be sketchy, it’s kind of messed up,” PewDiePie added.
Le has since posted a short apology video where he shifted blame to his management team and asked fans for forgiveness. He also pointed the finger at a variety of other YouTubers who had previously promoted Mystery Brand and escaped criticism.
“The money was on the table and to get the money all I had to do was open a few Supreme boxes and shoe boxes and boom!” said Lee. See, easy money! All you need to do is exploit your young followers and voila!
To his credit, Le went back and added annotations to the video description warning that the Mystery Brand is a scam, although these annotations appear to have been removed at the time of writing.
Of course, the right thing to do would be to take down the video, or at least de-monetise it, but that would mean returning the exorbitant sponsorship money. At least Le made an effort – Jake Paul has made no comment on the video.
However, Le saying that he wasn’t aware of Mystery Brand’s murky reputation is a cop-out. One simple Google search shows thousands of stories of users receiving fake items, bogus tracking information, or nothing at all. One forum user never received a pair of Yeezys that he won, another got a fake Bape shirt and many others are still waiting to hear back from the site regarding their products.
Reddit user Ian4Evr summed up many experiences with Mystery Brand.
“My experience with Mystery Brand: I spent US$350 on items and US$38 on shipping,” they wrote.
“That was on the 14th of October, 2018 when I ordered my Supreme x Louis Vuitton Pocket Knife. One month and three weeks later I have not received anything, neither the status has changed to shipped. This is a huge scam!”
If it walks like a duck and quacks like one, it’s probably a scam – wait, I mean duck. It wouldn’t surprise me if the site gathers endorsements from prominent internet influencers, doctors the odds for them and sends out just enough real products to make the site seem legitimate. Given the site works on probability and loot boxes, it’s difficult to prove people like Paul and Le weren’t just luckier than other users.
As much as I’d love to blame this entire thing on Paul and Le specifically, the problem is much larger. Sure, they are responsible for their actions, but the wider culture surrounding social media influencers has become a moral grey area.
What is known as ‘influencer advertising’ has become the largest advertising trend in the world. You may laugh away all the models shilling makeup and leggings on your Instagram feed, but US$1.5 billion was spent on influencer marketing in 2016 alone, with the number projected to reach US$20 billion by 2020.
Influencer advertising is so successful because it offers quick, targeted access to already engaged audiences; it’s also relatively cheap and reaches an audience often exceeding that of network TV. It feeds on the perception of trust between influencers and their fan bases.
Influencers – and YouTubers in particular – give their fanbases privileged access to their lives in order to create a perception of authenticity. This authenticity is then exploitable in that influencers can use the trust they inspire for various commercial enterprises.
Whether you’re a fan of Kylie Jenner, The Rock, Jake Paul or LeBron James, influencer marketing works because we inherently trust the opinions of people we admire.
If you use social media, you are being subjected to a constant stream of products, items and services being sold to you. Whether it’s Instagram models posting about protein shakes, YouTubers encouraging Mystery Brand or Fortnite streamers using Uber Eats, advertisements are all around us.
And if you think about all the ads you do recognise in your daily web-browsing, consider that scientific literature suggests that even media savvy individuals like you and I miss 56 per cent of instances of influencer advertising.
There’s a simple reason for this: recognition of influencer advertisement negatively affects consumer reaction and buying behaviour. In other words, it’s in the best interests of brands, influencers and social media platforms to hide ads because they work better that way. FYI, “work better” means getting more money out of you.
Influencer advertising isn’t all negative, but its effects depend on how the individual influencer wields it. For example, prominent Twitch streamer NickMercs regularly uses Uber Eats during his streams. Seeing that he spends around ten hours a day gaming, the partnership makes sense. Plus, it is an advertisement for a reputable company that offers a great service.
In contrast to NickMercs’ implementation of advertising, Jake Paul and RiceGum exploited their audiences with no thoughts about their audiences. As RiceGum admitted in his apology video, he did it for the money and didn’t consider any of the consequences. That’s okay, I’m sure that many of you may do the same, but is that really someone you want to support?
The main problem at the moment with influencer advertising is the distinct lack of legislation. Currently, best practice guidelines set by the Australian Association of National Advertisers (AANA) advise promotions should be clearly disclosed with unobtrusive terms like #ad or #spon.
Influencers, brand and social media companies who follow these guidelines are in the clear, but the AANA guidelines are entirely optional, which kind of defeats the purpose. We can be sure social media companies won’t be the one to drive change – they operate by selling consumers (us) to advertisers.
Facing these stacked odds, it’s important to be vigilant. These advertisements are easy to dismiss as harmless, but we live in a world where life itself is being commodified. It’s essential to learn to recognise when products are being sold to you and to question the motivations behind the advertisement. Often motivations are pure, but as exemplified by Paul and Le, sometimes they are not.
Remember that you are not a consumer: you’re a human being. If an influencer you follow doesn’t treat you like one, perhaps you shouldn’t be supporting them.
The slightly defeating thing about the whole controversy is that the backlash doesn’t matter unless people act. Since the initial reaction, RiceGum has posted two videos addressing the subject, both with over a million views.
People need to stop watching and supporting people like Paul, Le and the thousands of other influencers who see their fans as nothing but dollar signs.
There is only one way to push back against those who encourage people to gamble, buy fake products, or fill their lips with collagen – ignore them.