The Intimacy Trap

Are all vloggers advertisers?

Does it even matter?

I’ve been asking myself this question ever since I began to watch vlogs, about 8 or so years ago.

Casey Niestat inspired me to make vlogs. So did AmandaMuse & Gary Vaynerchuk. If it wasn’t for these people and their video documents, I wouldn’t be making my own. Creating a video journal of my life has been so transformative for me that I will be forever indebted to these people.

This post isn’t about my creative inspiration, however. I’ll leave that until another day.

This post is about a practice used by vloggers that I have termed, ‘the intimacy trap’. My interpretation of the concept has shaped both how I make videos and also a culling of who I currently follow in the vlogging space.

Casey Niestat inspired me to vlog because of his nostalgic videos. He has a penchant for reminiscing and so do I. We are also the same age. On a basic level, this made me feel a human-to-human connection with him. Casey has made mountains of video footage of his life which he weaves masterfully into beautiful stories in the form of daily vlogs. He captivated me with these movies and I began to figure I knew him. But as his YouTube following grew his vlogs shared less about his relationships and more about products. Things that others had sent him or things that he was paid to talk about. Don’t get me wrong, I like talking about products and watching videos about products. But it seemed to me that after he achieved a large modicum of success as a vlogger he didn’t want to share much about his personal life. Maybe the lack of privacy he experienced through achieving internet stardom hit him hard. I don’t know. But I took it to mean that his ultimate goal was not to document his life. I took his removal of his personal life from his vlogs to mean, especially upon what happened around the sale of his company, Beme, that Casey’s vlogs were in large part a sales tactic to get other people to buy things for his ultimate profit.

I believe that Casey trapped me into being a loyal viewer by sharing intimate details of his personal life simply to show my eyeballs ads. And when I recognized this might be the case, I felt used. I know that sounds extreme, but I felt that sick let-down feeling like I just watched an incredibly long TV commercial which I only discovered to be one at the tale end. I felt tricked. I felt let down. I felt naive. Yet I still find myself watching his videos with interest because I now care about him. I felt like he developed an emotional connection with me by sharing so much personal information publicly and by allowing me a window into his creative process, that it created a dragnet around my viewership and loyalty. This is what I have come to term the intimacy trap.

To me, the intimacy trap is a marketing strategy whereby emotional personal information is revealed by the creator in order to create a feeling of personal closeness with the audience. This connection is used to bait the audience into investing into the creator’s story and well-being so that the creator is able to motivate a sale of goods and services in order to take profit. The “trap” occurs because once the audience member feels a sense of personal connection with the viewer, it is very hard to turn these emotions off and remove a sense of loyalty. Once the viewer is emotionally hooked, the creator can use this sense of kinship (deepened with social media by the creator’s ability to directly engage with viewers) to expose the viewer to ads which translates to (hopefully) sales…over and over again. It has been scientifically proven that this marketing strategy works.

I write this today because I feel like this marketing tactic is being used with too much abundance in the vlogging world. Perhaps it’s inadvertent at times. But with Casey it is too convenient given that he made advertisements long before he made vlogs. He is a movie maker, yes, but he is primarily an ad man. A modern mad man. Frankly, I’m tired of watching the intimacy trap play out because it’s end result is that the creator’s true story becomes diluted and the storybook ending fades away into oblivion. It’s as if the back pages have been torn from a book.

I want to move beyond those who use the intimacy trap as both a consumer and producer of content.

As I’ve said, I am an avid vlog-viewer. I love to watch a person tell their story in real time. I’m sharing this with you today in case you too are obsessed with vlogs, have felt the effects of the intimacy trap and are ready to make consumption or production changes yourself.

A cable television a TV show is broken up by advertisements which, in theory, fund the show’s production. The show starts out with a segment (and yes, includes product placements etc.), airs dedicated ads in the form of commercials, shows another segment, airs an ad break or two more and wraps up.

When I’m deciding how personally engaged someone’s content I want to get, I look at a person’s entire body of recent work and take a step back. When I look at someone’s YouTube channel or Instagram feed, I think about where the ads are placed and what percentage of their content is a direct advertisement.  Sometimes it’s easy to decipher and sometimes it is not. But if the scales are tipped to mostly advertisements, I don’t feel the need to continue feeling an emotional connection with the creator. I disengage. This is how I ensure more of my time is spent watching artistic content > ads, which is my preference.

What has bothered me lately is a trend I see from creators to make the advertisements on their channel the really good videos while the non-sponsored content fails to reach the same level of quality. If you extend the tv example to this, it would be as if the ads for a tv show were upgraded to Superbowl quality but the Superbowl game quality itself was downgraded. I cringe to use this example because I don’t watch tv anymore and find most of it’s structure outdated…but I feel like it’s fitting. The long and short of it is that I do not want to see vlog commercials made better than the meat of the artistic content. When I see this happening, I start to unfollow.

I follow many mom vloggers as I am one myself and so often I see fatigue depicted. That’s part of mom life, as I’m well aware. But when the fatigue seems to disappear with the sponsored content and then come back for the regular content wherein the entire vlog is the mom stating how many “business” meetings she has and how tired she is from it and how many “deadlines” she has…I disengage. Prioritizing commercial content over non-commercial is just not what I want to see from a creator. And pretending to be fresh for ads and dog tired for non-sponsored videos is phoney. Too harsh? I’m sorry but when capturing the truth is not the #1 focus, it’s not interesting or relatable content for me to consume.

As a producer of vlogs with relatively little viewership and therefore few advertisers knocking at my door, I don’t have to worry about my content having too many ads. I fully admit that this post is easy for me to write resultantly. Nevertheless, I intend to share personal content for the purpose of connecting with my viewers outside of sponsored content. This is part of my story that I want to keep pure so that my vlog content remains an authentic document of my life. Therefore the sponsored content I will do as my channel grows will not be the tug-at-your-heart-strings type. It will be superficial. I will specify this practice with brands. I will make regular tv Budweiser ads, not Superbowl ones. I will continue to try to strive to improve my vlogs to Superbowl quality. Authentically.

Perhaps all vloggers are advertisers, advertant or inadvertantly so. But they are also personal story-tellers outside of the advertisements they share.  I currently prefer to watch those who keep the distinction between the two as clear as possible and those who prioritize sharing their personal story outside of sponsored content.

I would love to know your thoughts on the matter.


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