As we shift into the all but inevitable creative economy, the problem of “money” comes up. Because as any creative will tell you, “Exposure doesn’t pay the bills.”
Even if you can make great email newsletters, engaging blog posts, or amazing videos, those things are not going to pay. No matter have good your product is, you’re gonna have to find a way to make money from it.
But, it’s hard for creatives to earn money from their work. Youtubers are getting their content demonetized for just saying “Coronavirus.” Musicians are getting paid much less from streaming. Artists are constantly asked to “work for exposure.”
This often means that creatives have to search for ways to keep the lights on at home. Specifically, Youtubers have been turning to sponsored posts to earn some money. While there is no problem with lifestyle influencers making paid posts, it’s definitely questionable for independent journalists to make some types of paid posts.
This was highlighted when Johnny Harris, an independent journalist, made a video on “How China Became So Powerful.” While the piece may have started out as a video about the astronomic growth of China’s economy, it soon revealed that it was a sponsored post by the World Economic Forum for the vague notion of “Stakeholder capitalism.”
The piece itself was deceitful and unethical for a journalist. However, the video asks several questions. What are ethical ways for creators to earn money? How should they go about paid posts?
What was the video
Johnny Harris’ video starts out talking about how China become the second-largest economy in the world. He describes how China’s shift to capitalism made China a powerful economy. However, midway through the video, the video shifts away from China’s economy to inequality.
Harris starts talking about how there’s been increased inequality during recent times. He then starts discussing his ‘solution’ to this problem. He first brushes off socialism as being ridiculous and then says that “shareholder capitalism” is the solution.
This brings up the end of the video where he finally reveals that the video was a sponsored advert by the World Economic Forum. He tells us that “stakeholder capitalism” was pioneered by the World Economic Forum, and he recommends that we buy a book from them on shareholder capitalism.
The notion of stakeholder capitalism is incredibly vague and is essentially defined as capitalism, but “caring” about people other than shareholders, such as its employees, the employee’s families, and the people living nearby the company. It’s very subjective, and companies can call themselves supporters of “stakeholder capitalism” without doing anything.
Harris was basically paid to utter his support for big corporations benefiting from capitalism.
Why it was wrong
While the World Economic Forum may portray itself as a nonprofit organization doing good in the world, it’s more like a lobbying organization for big corporations. The organization is funded by its members who are big corporations like Apple, Goldman Sachs, and Walmart. These companies all benefit heavily from capitalism, and it would obviously harm them if governments switched to socialism. Big corporations would have to pay more taxes to fund social programs. They might have to face more regulation too.
“Stakeholder Capitalism” allows companies to look socially responsible without having to be more ethical, to be forced to pay their workers better wages, and to be required to pay more taxes. It’s why the World Economic Forum created and supported “Stakeholder Capitalism” and why so many big corporations support it as well.
By partnering with the World Economic Forum and endorsing its message, Harris was paid to utter his support for an organization representing big corporations.
While it’s fine for influencers to do sponsored posts, it’s a problem for a journalist to engage in this activity.
Journalists either report on the news, aka reporting, or give their take on the news, opinion journalism. Whatever a journalist does, however, they should not be paid to promote a certain view relevant to their work, especially if they're being paid by a glorified lobbying organization. Johnny Harris was paid to support a certain view that’s important to his work. He was paid to support “stakeholder capitalism.”
What’s even worse is how Harris essentially tried to hide the fact that the video was sponsored. he only revealed that the video was sponsored until the very end. This misleads the audience to think that the video is journalism when it’s actually pure propaganda.
Obviously, creators should be allowed to take sponsorships, but they should do so carefully.
What it means
Harris's piece reveals the cautious struggle of creators trying to fund themselves in the creator economy. Creators, like everyone, have to make money. However, platforms don’t often offer monetization, or they easily demonetize content. This forces content creators to search for ways to monetize their content that can often be unethical.
Obviously, creators should be allowed to take sponsorships, but they should do so carefully. Creators should think about whether it's appropriate to market a product to their audience. For example, Jake Paul should not ever market gambling to children.
Creators should also ask whether the content they produce prevents them from doing some paid promotions. For example, political pundits should not be paid to support a political party. Similarly, a judge should not have sponsorships with a company that’s involved in a case that the judge is overseeing.
Secondly, creators should be as transparent as possible about sponsorship. Harris should’ve mentioned at the beginning of the video that the video was a paid sponsorship. It would have prevented him from misleading his audience from thinking his views were completely his own.
As the creator economy expands, it’s important that creators be mindful of sponsorship and funding. Sponsorships can help creators fund their endeavors, but they can also be unethical. In the case of Johnny Harris, he engaged in unethical sponsorships by partnering with a lobbying organization to essentially push capitalism down the reader’s throats.
To avoid engaging in unethical activity, creators should thoroughly vet and think through any possible sponsorships to avoid any illegal or unethical activity.