Korean subscribers take tough stance on YouTube controversy
A pattern has emerged among Korean YouTubers returning to the platform after being called out for their involvement in advertising malpractice.
Dubbed as “backdoor advertising” in Korean, the malpractice shook the YouTube community after popular content creators were ousted for not properly informing their subscribers that they had received payment from companies for content they uploaded.
When the controversy first came to light in July and August, some YouTubers responded by deleting their channels and quitting the platform. Others chose to just take a break.
The pattern that emerged was the time frame in which those who took a break returned — within six months.
This time frame derives from YouTube Korea's policy which considers a channel deactivated if no content is uploaded or the creator doesn't log in for six months. When a channel is deemed deactivated, the platform then has the right to strip its qualification to earn revenue.
This pattern has led subscribers to scoff at content creators' apologies and breaks from the platform for their so-called misdeeds. Many think they simply wait long enough for the backlash to die down — but not long enough for their channels to stop earning them revenue.
Loyal fans and subscribers are calling for sincerity in YouTubers’ apologies — and when they don’t see it, they don’t hesitate to hurl stones.
Two of the most famous YouTubers on the frontline of such backlash are Mun Gi-yeon who runs mukbang YouTube channel “Eat with Boki” and Kim Bo-kyem, a YouTuber and a broadcast jockey (BJ) who mainly uploads mukbang and game content on his channel “Bokyem BK.” Both took breaks from YouTube after it was revealed they hadn't disclosed they were being paid to advertise products on their channels. Boki returned on Nov. 9 after a three-month hiatus while Bokyem returned after two months on Oct. 26.
Say goodbye to subscribers
While Boki and Bokyeum saved their channels from being deactivated by returning with the six-month time span, the YouTubers did see a huge drop in the number of people subscribed to their channels.
Bokyem, who initially denied any involvement in the controversy over paid advertisement, was revealed to have received an advertisement fee of 19 million won ($17,500) from chicken brand Chiyonam.
He faced even more backlash because he has previously mocked other YouTubers about product placement and had also mocked the chicken brand while reviewing it.
He failed to give what subscribers deemed a proper response and chose to take two months off to “repent” for his actions. When he returned, he had a lost a whopping 500,000 subscribers, dropping from 4 million to 3.5 million.
“I believe that the Korean public unconsciously condemn those cases which they judge to have crossed the line and have no chance of redemption,” said Professor Yoo Hyun-jae of Sogang University’s School of Communication. “For instance, lying to earn commercial profit, illegal dealings, or lukewarm showmanship. When those factors were combined together, the viewers were ‘disgusted’ by [the YouTubers’] actions and [went off] and found other alternatives.”
Mukbang creator Jeong Man-su active under the name of Banzz may be one of the first cases in Korea of viewers finding an alternative.
Once referred to as “a god of mukbang,” Banzz garnered a huge following for being able to consume unbelievable quantities of food while still staying in shape.
However, things took a turn for Banzz in August 2019, when he was found guilty of false advertising and exaggerating the effects of dietary supplements that he launched. He was fined 5 million won.
But it wasn't until he uploaded a response to the court's decision that the backlash began in earnest.
When viewers deemed his apology insufficient, they unsubscribed en masse. Over the course of five months his total number of subscribers plummeted from 3.2 million to 2.3 million.
Although he is still active as a creator, the average number of views on his recent videos remain very low compared to his total number of subscribers, often staying between 25,000 to 60,000.
“Business models using YouTube and influencers are more volatile than what people think,” Yoo perceives. “In other words, there is higher possibility that [the model] can be shattered after one incident. There are lots of other alternatives, and the public can always use their most powerful authority at hand — ostracizing. Those who do not grasp this pattern [in time] have no choice but to fall behind.”
The paid advertisement controversy is just one of many that YouTube is at the center of this year.
Mega-popular military-themed web entertainment show “Fake Men 2” faced criticism from viewers that the content was too violent.
“Fake Men” began this year in July as a parody of terrestrial broadcaster MBC’s variety show “Real Men” (2013-2019), which features celebrities experiencing Korean military training.
It sees YouTube celebrities undergo extreme military training and gained explosive popularity since its launch, accumulating 56 million views on YouTube.
Rumors were also rife about the private lives of instructors, including past allegations of sexual harassment.
The criticism and demands to clear up the rumors caused its uploader YouTube channel Physical Gallery to take down the four episodes that they’d already released in October and declared that no more episodes will be aired on the channel. However, the episodes were later made available again via streaming platforms Watcha and Kakao TV last month after the heat died down.
Popular YouTube couple Josh Carrott and Gook Gabie, who each run their own YouTube channels, Korean Englishman and GabieKook with 3.9 million and 1.3 million subscribers respectively, received flack for content they uploaded in October which saw the couple violate the mandatory two-week quarantine for overseas travelers returning to Korea, by inviting guests over for a birthday party.
The couple each uploaded apologies on their channel, but when the disputes escalated, Gook deleted all videos on her channel while Carrott said that he will be “stepping back” from content creation and spending time to “truly self-reflect.”
Lee Dong-gwi, a professor of psychology at Yonsei University, views this process of ethical censorship as a natural phenomenon.
“When there is an expansion in quantity, the quality and purification process naturally follows,” Lee said. “And for Koreans, that dividing line became morality. The heart of malaise in Korea was corruption, lies which are deeply rooted in so many numerous social aspects including politics, and what’s come to matter for us is about fairness: If the [YouTubers] do not seem to possess a moral compass, then is it fair for them to reap profit? [The public] are saying it’s not.”
Another factor to consider is the expansion of YouTuber’s influence, culture critic Kim Heon-sik said.
“They don’t stay just as YouTubers — the platform becomes a gateway for them to expand to other media when broadcasters pick them up for their shows,” Kim said. “I think the viewers also link the [YouTube platform] to broadcasters, and their growing social influence and impact, which is why the public are strict to monitor those who violate ethics or common sense.”
Real or fake?
While Bokyem lost hundreds of thousands of subscribers, things appear to have returned to normal for the aforementioned Boki.
After she started uploading content again last month, the number of her subscribers took an upturn. She had 4.65 million followers on July 31 when she last uploaded before taking a break. She now has over 4.7 million subscribers.
However, the comments that follow below her videos are overwhelmingly in English or other languages — there are hardly any Korean comments, a strong signal that many of her former local fans have moved on.
When Boki faced criticism over her content, it wasn’t just due to paid advertisement. Local subscribers also questioned her eating style dubbed in Korean as “Mukbaet,” which means that the YouTuber spits out the food rather than swallowing it to allow them to consume large quantities. Her Korean subscribers demanded Boki upload an unedited video to clarify the matter, and were even more enraged when what the YouTuber uploaded was another edited version. More criticism arose when it was revealed that the YouTuber appeared to be taking order from someone behind the camera and people speculated that her videos were being filmed in a studio and her content was “staged.” The disputed video was later deleted.
Korean subscribers appear to be particularly sensitive to the authenticity of YouTube content.
“It’s because the YouTube platform was initially an alternative to broadcasters, but when they become more or less the same, the content loses its color,” Prof. Lee evaluates. “I think the younger generation today wants to feel connected to the content [they’re watching]. […] One of the reasons why reality shows on broadcasting channels were once popular was because the viewers sympathized with the celebrities who were once thought to be separate from the masses. But the moment when viewers feel like something is being staged, they lose interest because they think it’s been done for the money.”
“Hello everyone, it’s Tzuyang. I think it’s been a long time since I said hello.”
Mukbang YouTuber Park Jeong-won, who goes by the name Tzuyang and has accumulated over 2.8 million subscribers, uploaded a video after a two-month hiatus on Nov. 20 with the simple title “Thank You.”
“To tell you the truth, I’m feeling quite embarrassed [right now to come back] after telling you all that I will never be coming back,” she said.
The YouTuber looked a little sheepish in the video, and she had a good reason, as on Aug. 6, she had officially announced that she will “retire” from YouTube, emphasizing that she will “never” be coming back after growing sick of malicious comments and false rumors being hurled at her. Tzuyang was initially targeted as one of the YouTubers involved in the paid advertising controversy.
In the “Thank You” video, the YouTuber admitted that she’d been rash to announce her retirement when she was in an emotional state and apologized to viewers for going back on her word.
Unlike Boki however, local fans welcomed her warmly.
Like ex-star Banzz, she is well-known for consuming large quantities of food but keeping a naturally thin figure. Comments that compliment her eating style point out that the YouTuber seems to be comfortable and “truly” enjoy herself when she eats.
“When looking into the reason why these disputes keep happening on YouTube, we need to go back to the source and think about the very nature of social media,” culture critic Kim said. “Essentially it’s about validity and trust: These YouTubers are not broadcasting people, and they [initially] gained popularity because people thought that they were honestly sharing what they’ve felt and thought, which is why the public accentuates such elements [in YouTube content]. [The disputes] are also a warning that YouTube content is always walking on thin ice.”
BY LEE JAE-LIM [firstname.lastname@example.org]