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YouTube personalities are reshaping the celebrity business model

Ian Andrew Hecox, left, and Anthony Padilla of Smosh speak on stage during YouTube Comedy Week in Culver City, Calif., in 2013.

JC Olivera/WireImage

The most-followed man on Google Inc.'s video network isn't Jim Parsons or Johnny Depp. It's Felix Arvid Ulf Kjellberg, otherwise known as PewDiePie, a Swedish video-gamer who screams profanities, raising questions about whether the traditional machine for making celebrities has been replaced.

A recent survey published by Hollywood trade magazine Variety suggested that five of the top YouTube personalities already have greater influence among teens in the United States than any traditional television, music or movie celebrity. Worse, number six was a dead man – Fast and Furious lead Paul Walker. The only other red-carpet types in the top 10 were Jennifer Lawrence, Katy Perry and Steve Carrell.

"It has definitely hit a chord; it's the buzz around Hollywood," says Jeetendr Sehdev, a USC professor and advertising industry veteran who calls himself a "celebrity branding authority." His team performed the survey for Variety, with a mix of online and phone polling, ethnographic study and data crunching that he believes can create a true "science of celebrity." His basic takeaway is that young people crave the authenticity, genuineness and lack of a politically correct filter displayed by many of the biggest YouTube video stars, and that teens have highly tuned out some of the products of the "manufactured" and managed Hollywood star apparatus.

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"What it brings to the fore is something that people know deep down," Mr. Sehdev says. "[Hollywood] knows that things have got to change, and a whole new generation is coming up that is different in their behaviour."

Variety estimated PewDiePie is pulling in $5.4-million annually. He collects millions of views with mostly unscripted videos of him playing the latest video games, chatting/yelling with his girlfriend or accepting fan challenges to do dumb stuff on tape. His content is not for everyone, but YouTube is not even 10 years old yet and "shows" like his illustrate the potential for things to come.

"Brands that are polarizing are going to create a stronger bond," says Mr. Sehdev.

"If you're looking to please everyone, you are going to reduce your chances about creating that stronger emotional appeal. Value is being created [on YouTube] through emotional bonding … it's certainly a scalable model."

The other top two acts on Variety's list of the new YouTube glitterati are comedy duos Smosh and the Fine Brothers. Smosh is the kind of thing most adults would wince at: The videos feature a lot of screaming, toilet humour and boob jokes in sketches that trade on geek and sci-fi-centric humour. The Fine brothers do their share of yelling, but they at least have a couple of interesting concepts where they are not the stars, including the well-regarded "Kids react to…" videos where pre-teens are unintentionally hilarious as they puzzle over relics like the typewriter or the original Nintendo Gameboy. But are these the kinds of acts that Hollywood can use to sell movie tickets or endorse cars or fizzy colas?

For years, the gold standard for measuring the emotional bond the public has with a celebrity is the Q Score, a survey that is marking its 50th anniversary. Part of what made Variety's survey so compelling was the contrast between it and the Q Score's ranking of teen sentiment. Though, according to Henry Schafer, executive vice-president with The Q Scores Company, the Variety study left out a critical ingredient of his survey: "Awareness."

"Just because you are following somebody doesn't mean you're going to react to them in a positive purchase intent kind of way if they are used to represent a product," says Mr. Schafer. "There are going to be rare exceptions, like Justin Bieber or Psy. It can happen, but it happens because they move out of the YouTube and become more mainstream. You are talking about two different worlds."

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But for Mr. Sehdev, something even more dramatic is going on, and the definition of "mainstream" itself may be changing. "Celebrity has an enormous pull in our society and that hold is only increasing," he says. "The younger generation cannot get enough celebrity or celebrity addiction. There is money to be made where there is true, authentic engagement, the business models are going to be changing."

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