Opinion: Going viral for the wrong reasons

What brands, influencers and the public can learn from Logan Paul's "suicide forest" controversy
Shock viewing: A scene from Logan Paul’s recent ‘Suicide Forest’ video
By Bernd Debusmann Jr
Fri 05 Jan 2018 10:40 AM

In an age of “citizen journalism”, social media and instant connectivity, “traditional” media outlets are often seen as slow, bogged down by what some may see as an antiquated process of relentless fact-checking and time-consuming checks and balances. The internet age, however, can be dangerous for the very absence of those restrictions, as YouTube megastar Logan Paul found out last week.

After what Paul himself now admits was a spectacularly ill-advised and indefensible decision to upload a video clip depicting the aftermath of a death in Japan’s Aokigahara Forest, known for the suicides that happen there, criticism came from far and wide. Everyone from Hollywood A-listers to members of his own “Logang” fanbase weighed in, calling the video disrespectful and horrifying.

Paul isn’t the first social media star to learn the hard way that, in his words, an enormous audience and reach comes with “great responsibility”, and he won’t be the last. While he no doubt regrets the (hopefully) spur-of-the-moment decision to upload the video, the bottom line is that not a single person in his considerable entourage blocked its release. As Paul said in a recent Arabian Business cover story, “you don’t just upload”. He and his team should have known better.

This, of course, is exactly why “traditional” media outlets cling to the ABCs of journalism. Facts are checked, videos and articles edited, and there is a constant back-and-forth to determine what is, or isn’t, acceptable for publication.

Paul might not be a journalist. But the fact that he has audience that dwarfs the reach of many media outlets – comprised largely of impressionable young people – means that the same rules must apply.

As he sheepishly admitted in his apology, he “handled that power incorrectly”.

Paul’s blunder also comes at a time when brands are funnelling considerable resources into relationships with personalities, ranging from athletes and actresses to “influencers” cashing in on their social media following.

While these relationships can be very fruitful to brands hoping to reach a large audience, and very lucrative for the influencer, they can also end extremely badly. These “influencers” are, after all, human. They make mistakes, say the wrong things and sometimes make poor choices. What 22-year old – Paul’s age – hasn’t?

The annals of the 21st century are full of brands having to drop people for their bad decisions. Tiger Woods lost sponsors after the perfect storm of a car crash and exposure for repeated infidelity, as have the likes of Wayne Rooney, Michael Phelps, Manny Pacquiao, Scarlett Johansson and many lesser-known influencers of all kinds, for a variety of reasons.

With this in mind, it is vitally important for the brand and the influencer to be mindful of who they work with. Omar Butti, executive director of innovation at the Dubai Film and TV Commission (DFTC), recently told Arabian Business that influencers and brands who are partnering need to ensure they fit well with each other’s audience.

In a best-case scenario, the failure to do so will result in one or both parties being disappointed with the business results of an “influencer marketing” campaign. A worst-case scenario, best exemplified by Paul’s recent misadventure in the forest, may result in outright embarrassment (remember Kendall Jenner’s Pepsi controversy?) and force brands and influencers to go into damage-control mode. Paul, we are told, was planning to open a store for his Mavericks clothing label in Dubai. Which retailer will want to partner with him in light of this incident?

This episode, then, should serve as a cautionary tale to influencers and brands the world over: in the age of viral videos, think before you post.

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