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YouTube's "ad-friendly" content policy may push one of its biggest stars off the website

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Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

Prominent YouTube star Philip DeFranco has seen the site undergo enormous changes — from major shifts in its position on copyright to the introduction of its subscription service, YouTube Red — in the 10 years he’s been posting videos to the platform. In that time, the audience for his three channels has ballooned to over 4.5 million subscribers (6 million if you count all his channels) and a staggering 2 billion views.

DeFranco is known for his candid, often satirical delivery and his willingness to cover everything from celebrity gossip to memes. As his audience has grown, he’s won awards for his informal news series and formed partnerships with major platforms like TMZ and SourceFed.

But on August 31, YouTube disabled monetization for at least 12 of DeFranco’s videos, prompting a frustrated response in his daily news dispatch:


The official reason provided to DeFranco was that his content was either not "advertiser-friendly" or contained "graphic content," or "excessive strong language." DeFranco frequently swears in his videos, and regularly refers to his followers as "Beautiful Bastards."

YouTube

Additional language in the community guidelines states that sensitive or controversial content can render a YouTube video not "advertiser-friendly."

The demonetization means DeFranco will not be able to run ads (read: make money from ads) on any of those videos, and also means his channel is considered to be in violation of YouTube’s community guidelines.

Though YouTube says the demonetization is the result of changes to its notification system, and not a reflection of changes in its policies, it's unclear why DeFranco and other vloggers are just getting flagged on content now even though many of them have been posting similar videos to YouTube for years. DeFranco and his supporters worry the move could have implications for all YouTube creators.

DeFranco believes the demonetization is a form of censorship

In his regular daily news series, DeFranco reacted with confusion to the decision to disable his monetization. He pointed out that YouTube’s terms of service state that the presence of "controversial or sensitive subjects" might be grounds for the site turning off ads.

The video that sparked YouTube’s decision featured several such topics, including DeFranco’s opinions about a so-called "Social Justice Warrior" (SJW) who was caught on a leaked video harassing a Lyft driver, the release of convicted rapist Brock Turner from prison, and Chris Brown’s recent police stand-off. Most of the offensive material seemed to come not from DeFranco’s own commentary but from the news content itself.

"It seems by covering the real, raw news story and not, like, watering it down, I got in trouble," he said, adding, "How are you supposed to cover news?" A clearly baffled DeFranco worried that YouTube might be setting a dangerous precedent: "This is a much bigger situation than me."

Though YouTube is only targeting individual videos, its actions could prevent a lot of creators from making any money

Although the title of his video, "YouTube is shutting down my channel and I’m not sure what to do," implied he was considering a permanent exit from the site, DeFranco didn’t definitively say he would close the channel.

However, YouTube’s three-strike policy on rule violations means the site could easily suspend or delete DeFranco’s channel if he continues to turn on ad monetization for videos that are deemed ad-inappropriate.

In a lengthy statement provided to Vox via email, DeFranco clarified that he is not leaving YouTube any time soon. "Youtube is my home. Without Youtube I wouldn't have a career," he said. "When I say they are shutting me down," he elaborated, "what I'm trying to simplify is an argument I've since made to Youtube themselves."

By taking away monetization on what appears to be the news, opinion, commentary side of Youtube, they are effectively shutting down those channels. Giving them a death sentence. Youtube has made the point that they are not removing the video, so they are not "shutting down" anything, but I feel that anyone who understands this business knows that if you hit people in the wallet, that is where you really hurt them. The poison will be slowly administered, and now we're just waiting for it to slowly do its job. If anything, this move further drives home the point that content creators need to put their content everywhere.

DeFranco urged his viewers to follow him on various other social media platforms, and stressed that he had built his business to be reliant on secondary income sources in the event of just such a scenario.

"I am a Youtuber, but I'm also a big believer in putting your content in every place possible," he told Vox, pointing out that Facebook is working to allow creators to monetize their content on the site, Twitter now has ads on videos, and "creators have more choices than ever."

DeFranco’s video response to the demonetization racked up half a million views in half a day, along with thousands of outraged comments on YouTube, Twitter, and Reddit.

The demonetization has hit YouTube creators across the political spectrum, bolstering both user concern and cries of censorship

In DeFranco’s first demonetized video, DeFranco (like many of his viewers) was critical of the behavior of the woman who spouted social justice rhetoric in the aforementioned video of a Lyft driver being harassed. As a result, some members of the alt-right movement are claiming that YouTube's move is actually about "cracking down on anti-SJW media." DeFranco told Vox this is more of a "perception problem for YouTube" than an actual crackdown against the alt-right movement.

"The people who have been hit the hardest [by YouTube’s monetization policy] have been conservative voices," he said, "people who have ranted about SJW or ‘PC Cry Bullies,’ which may have been deemed offensive by Youtube."

But DeFranco also pointed out that popular news commentary channel The Young Turks, which is known for its strident liberalism, has also just had many of its videos demonetized by YouTube.

"I've seen channels dinged now for talking about depression and anti-bullying. And I've also seen channels like CNN include footage of a Syrian boy covered in blood, after his house was reportedly bombed, and right next to the video is a nice little ad for sneakers. So you get the question, ‘Why me and not them?’" he said.

YouTube’s decision could impact YouTubers who already struggle to draw revenue from their channels

YouTube’s move comes the day after the New York Times published an article detailing the Federal Trade Commission’s concern over the blurry line between advertisements and endorsements on internet celebrity platforms. Tangentially, the Times reported that the average YouTube "star" — someone with 3 to 7 million followers — can command nearly $190,000 on average for a single sponsored post placed on their channel.

DeFranco disputed this amount, calling it "somewhat bullshit" and pointing out that subscriber numbers don’t automatically translate to user engagement (which generally means "interacting" with a video by commenting on it, sharing it, etc.) — you might subscribe to a channel but never watch it again.

YouTube’s decision is a potentially troubling one, especially for the large sector of YouTube that DeFranco labels the "middle tier" of YouTube vloggers — what the Times referred to as "influencers" with 50,000 to 500,000 followers, as compared to the upper-tier classes with 1 to 2 million followers or more.

DeFranco pointed out, as other YouTubers have in the past, that internet fame doesn’t lead to a sustainable full-time income for the vast majority of "celebrities." If YouTube starts cracking down on content for not being "ad-friendly" enough, it could hurt these middle-tier vloggers far worse than a more major figure like DeFranco.

"When you take away monetization for a Youtube channel, you make the channel unsustainable to run as a full time job (mainly for the little guys, but also for some of the big guys who didn't diversify their revenue streams)," DeFranco told Vox. "Especially when it appears that the implementation of removing monetization is scattered and not hitting all Youtube channels equally. That said, I understand it is 100 percent their right to do this."

YouTube did respond to DeFranco’s concerns on Twitter, though the site’s assertion that the demonetization of some of his videos was the result of a new notification system was hardly reassuring:

DeFranco later claimed that YouTube would be providing him with an official statement that he would include in his daily news video on September 1.

"I'm hoping what comes from this is a conversation with Youtube and some flexibility from them," he told Vox. "Why are some hit, while others aren't?"

DeFranco wondered what the line is for covering or commenting on offensive news — whether, for example, YouTube will deem it necessary to remove advertising from a channel that only talks about or comments on potentially offensive news without including video footage of it. "With the current wording in their [terms of service], just talking about it is not ‘advertiser friendly.’"

He also offered several alternatives for allowing creators to monetize content that might be construed as "not ad-friendly" according to YouTube’s somewhat nebulous guidelines. "Does it make sense to still allow pre-rolls or post-rolls [ads that appear before or after the main video]?" he asked, "because then it would be just like a commercial break before/after a news program on CNN or Fox News." He also speculated that YouTube might create exceptions to allow advertising on content that some might deem offensive, much like late-night shows on cable TV have more leeway than those that air in primetime.

Though DeFranco has vowed that he won’t censor himself, he and many other YouTubers will undoubtedly be eager to see what, if any, long-term effects this sudden development will have on the overall site — and what direct effects it might have on their own channels.

"I love Youtube and they are still the biggest kid on the block when it comes to video discovery," DeFranco told Vox, "but I think it’s important to be critical of the things you love."


Update: In his Sept. 1 video, DeFranco shared YouTube's official statement: "While our policy of de-monetizing videos due to advertiser-friendly concerns hasn't changed, we've recently improved the notification and appeal process to insure better communication."

DeFranco acknowledged the appeal and review process was improved, similar to YouTube's system of copyright review, but also alleged that YouTube has been de-monetizing videos for months without directly informing the user. He said he had discovered that several of his own videos had previously been de-monetized without his realization. DeFranco also reiterated his belief that fear of de-monetization could lead YouTube channels to self-censor in ways that could harm the community's culture.

YouTube has reportedly stated it will not be issuing further comment on the policy.

The Young Turks news channel defended YouTube's decision, noting that while it was among the channels hardest hit by the de-monetization policy, the implementation of the notification and appeal process was a positive change.

Meanwhile, Vimeo may have had the last word: it responded to the controversy with a tribute to "the best advertiser-unfriendly videos" on the site.

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