Popular YouTubers like Jake Paul and Bryan “RiceGum” Le promoted a shady gambling website to their millions of subscribers, many of whom are children. And now they’re in the middle of a debate about the ethics and the responsibility that come with legions of young, highly impressionable superfans.
On December 30, Jake Paul, the younger brother of Logan Paul, who made headlines around this time last year for videotaping a suicide victim, published a video that looked exactly like many others on YouTube: a bait-y thumbnail (Paul’s stupefied expression surrounded by cutouts of objects, numbers, and random punctuation marks) with a comically hyperbolic title: “I Spent $5,000 ON MYSTERY BOXES & You WONT Believe What I Got (insane).”
The difference is that the video is an ad, which Paul disclosed in the video’s description, for Mystery Brand, a website where users pay different amounts of money — anywhere from a few bucks to $299 — to open digital boxes. There are “hypebeast” boxes, gaming boxes, boxes that only contain different types of watches, and even holiday-themed boxes, which might be filled with a 27-inch iMac, a Chanel purse, Off-White sneakers, or a Supreme jacket. More likely though, you’ll end up with a fidget spinner, or in the case of the Chanel box, which costs $99 to open, a vial of Chanel nail polish (retail price: $28).
A Daily Beast report Wednesday stated that some boxes claimed to include items like Lamborghini sports cars, Ferraris, and “The Most Expensive Los Angeles Realty $250,000,000” (which was actually a photo of a Bel Air mansion listed for $188 million that is not owned by Mystery Brand and therefore was not its to give away), though these items no longer appear to be available in any of the boxes currently on the site.
Even on a surface level, it’s pretty clear that Mystery Brand is shady — and that, along with the fact that many of the creators promoting it have an audience largely made up of children, is why many, many YouTubers have formed a chorus of criticism against Paul, RiceGum, and others.
According to its terms and conditions, Mystery Brand seems to be operated out of Poland. (“These terms are interpreted and are subject to the jurisdiction and the laws of Poland.”) And use of the website is “strictly prohibited for persons under 13 or persons not reached the age of majority.” It also says that those under “the age of majority” may not be eligible to receive the prizes they’ve won.
Elsewhere, however, it states that any user may not receive the items they’ve won, and according to reports, that’s exactly what’s happened. Multiple Reddit threads devoted to demystifying Mystery Brand show customers claiming that products have taken months to ship, if they ever do at all; that tracking numbers don’t work; or that they were forced to pay upward of $40 for shipping.
But there are infinite retail scams on the internet for YouTubers to promote. The problem for many is that despite YouTube’s strict gambling policies (advertisements may not promote gambling in areas where it is illegal, nor to minors), it doesn’t seem to classify Mystery Brand’s digital betting game as gambling. And Jake Paul, for instance, has gone on the record to say that his target audience is children between the ages of 8 and 16.
YouTube, meanwhile, is mostly concerned with creators clearly labeling their content as sponsored — which both Jake Paul and RiceGum did. The company gave the following statement to Vox:
YouTube believes that creators should be transparent with their audiences if their content includes paid promotion of any kind. Our policies make it clear that YouTube creators are responsible for ensuring their content complies with local laws, regulations and YouTube Community Guidelines. If content is found to violate these policies, we take action to ensure the integrity of our platform, which can include removing content.
It’s unclear whether or not the Federal Trade Commission, which sets regulations for sponsored content and advertising, is concerned with YouTubers promoting gambling websites to minors — an inquiry from Vox to the FTC came back with an automatic reply that the organization was closed due to the partial government shutdown.
RiceGum, for his part, did apologize in a video after YouTube’s most-subscribed star, PewDiePie, and Ethan Klein of h3h3 Productions called him out in their own videos covering the drama (although not before complaining that other YouTubers with largely young followings — the channel Reaction Zoom, Zane Hijazi, and Guava Juice among them — also promoted Mystery Brand within the last few months).
The YouTubers criticizing these channels’ promotion of Mystery Brand have focused both on the scamminess of the website itself as well as the responsibility that comes with having millions of young followers — both topics that have been lightning rods in YouTube drama over the past few years. PewDiePie in particular has been criticized for amplifying anti-Semitic rhetoric to his own young audience.
With fewer ad dollars floating around YouTube, some creators have turned to shadier dealings, like in the case of the recent controversy surrounding beauty bloggers being paid by cosmetics companies to post negative reviews about rival brands’ products. And it’s nothing compared to the debate about what duty the biggest YouTuber in the world has in making sure his content doesn’t encourage teenagers to view beliefs embraced by the alt-right as hilarious satire.
But the rewards for YouTubers who promote sites like Mystery Brand are too high for many of them to pass up. Creators like PewDiePie and Keemstar have both confirmed that they’d turned down huge sums of money to promote Mystery Brand or similar sites; Keemstar, for instance, said on Twitter he was offered $100,000 to promote it, while in his apology video Ricegum implied that his fee was much higher.
The experience of using Mystery Brand — the big bet, the thrill of opening a box, and the payoff of actually seeing the prizes IRL — has all the ingredients of a successful YouTube video.
Not only is it a form of digital unboxing, one of the site’s most lucrative tropes, but the idea of the surprise box stems from gaming culture, where players pay money to open loot boxes full of skins, weapons, and other virtual swag. (Loot boxes, incidentally, were the subject of their own Mystery Brand-like scandal in 2016, when the popular Twitch streamer James “Phantoml0rd” Varga promoted a website where users could gamble for weapon skins in the game Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and was banned after he was accused of secretly owning it.)
Similarly, those who promoted Mystery Brand have been widely suspected to have enjoyed false odds — many YouTubers have come to the conclusion that Mystery Brand knows exactly when someone like Paul or RiceGum is playing so that they’ll end up with one of its high-quality prizes.
“They’re just desperate for money and views,” YouTube creator Antonio Chavez told The Verge. “The channels have been going down for a while now, as far as analytics go. Their channels are big channels still, but they’re used to this kind of money — maybe six figure sponsorships all the time — and when they see that going down, they’ll take any kind of sponsorship.”
YouTube stresses that the responsibility for transparency in advertising lies with the creator, but some have criticized the company for allowing users to be misled. One artist whose avatar artwork was stolen by Mystery Brand told The Verge that “It’s amazing that YouTube can defend it at all. It’s the same as, ‘All the evidence might point to Russian collusion but let’s give them the benefit of the doubt.’”
Mystery Brand is what happens when a bunch of YouTube trends converge: a decrease in ad dollars, thereby encouraging creators to take on paid promotions no matter how sketchy; the dopamine rush of the unboxing video; and enough controversy for every YouTube creator to publish their own reaction video. And if it’s like most YouTube drama, the betting odds are high that it’s just getting started.