The bald and bespectacled Paul "Renetto" Robinett, doing his best full-throated impersonation of Eddie Vedder, strums his way through "Amazing Grace" on a beautiful, custom-made guitar. An instrument-maker in Nashville sent it to him.
"Don't let anybody tell you that there aren't perks for vlogging on YouTube," Robinett said, "because this guitar was mailed to me for free."
Robinett is one of a cadre of top YouTube filmmakers selected last week to participate in the site's new revenue-sharing program, in which the more viewers an artist attracts, the more advertising dollars (or cents) they'll receive.
But marketers, lured online by YouTube's growing viewership and the low cost of Internet advertising, had already been trying to capitalize on YouTube's big names — just more directly. Everyone from giant brand owners such as Coke, Proctor & Gamble and Hershey, to tiny one-man shops such as Robert Singer's Waterstone guitar outfit in Nashville, have been offering cash and goodies to the amateur filmmakers — in exchange for a little good will toward their product.
And, increasingly, YouTube performers seem happy to oblige.
At a recent industry conference, YouTube's chief marketing officer, Suzie Reider, explained the site's blossoming allure to advertisers.
"It's a real-time focus group that happens all day, every day," she said, according to Advertising Age.
Everyone agrees: Online, product placement is more effective than old-fashioned TV commercials.
"Internet content is typically very short," said Miles Beckett, one of the creators of YouTube-hit Lonelygirl15, a show in which the episodes are typically two to three minutes long. "If you try to put an ad in the beginning or middle of an Internet movie, it destroys the viewing experience."
Beckett and his team are rushing to incorporate newer, less obtrusive methods of advertising (and ones that, crucially, can't be fast-forwarded through) into Lonelygirl15 and its upcoming spinoff, KateModern. One such method is 'deep brand integration' — a kind of super product placement in which large swaths of story line are literally designed around a product.
Say Lonelygirl's handbag was stolen by the bad guys — and she had to recover it before they found the hidden microchip. If the bag were Coach, that's deep brand integration.
Beckett says he relishes the creative challenge of featuring products without turning off his viewers. "I just think of the brand as another character," he said.
And anyway, Beckett continued, the appearance of a handful of products and logos in a show such as Lonelygirl15 is not unrealistic when you think about it, given that "every inch of our world is branded."
But since many of YouTube's video bloggers have built their followings without a cent of corporate capital, some have been more circumspect about becoming vessels for paid messages.
"Part of the allure of YouTube is the realness of it," Robinett explained. " [The YouTube community] is nervous that if people are being paid to do their videos, it's not real anymore."
Mark Hillman of Resource Interactive, the online advertising agency that handled a YouTube-oriented campaign for Proctor & Gamble, agrees it's a touchy area. "To me, having product placement in YouTube videos is one more step toward YouTube possibly becoming too corporate," he said.
On hoax-happy YouTube, attacks on authenticity and accusations of "selling out" have always plagued artists, and the influx of advertising dollars has not helped with trust-building.
"It's getting hard these days to even talk about a good movie you've seen," Robinett said, "because I know people who have been paid by movie companies to do that very thing."
The blurry ethics of "guerrilla" advertising are still being worked out. One trend is ad spots that are made to look low-budget and amateurish when they're anything but. In other cases, such as the payola incidents Robinett alludes to, it can be difficult to tell if a video is an advertisement at all.
"A prototypical feature of viral advertising is that it's less transparent," said Christoph Nagel of Denmark's Clubviral.com, which has produced viral spots for Sprite and Quiksilver.
"People are getting tired of traditional advertising — they don't want to see someone smiling and saying 'This product is great.' "
Nagel's company has approached YouTube celebrities about getting in on the viral campaigns.
One YouTuber shared an e-mail in which Clubviral had offered hundreds of dollars for "ideas or variations of something we send to you (a concept / a basic idea / a product to be advertised)."
OTHER businesses have found that staying above board works just fine.
GPS Maniac, a consumer information website (www.gpsmaniac.com), paid YouTube funnyman Kevin Nalts to produce and star in a video called "What GPS Thinks." In it, the viewer gets to eavesdrop on the female GPS unit's inner monologue as she bemoans her bad luck with drivers. "I get this clown who never even leaves New Jersey," she mocks. "Who needs to navigate New Jersey, for God's sake?"
In the credits, there is an explicit thank you to GPS Maniac for its sponsorship.
According to Dana Fisher of GPS Maniac, the attention Nalts' video received — 26,000 views to date — has been a major traffic driver to the site. GPS Maniac has been so pleased that it has hired Nalts to produce future projects.
Singer, meanwhile, the owner of Waterstone Musical Instruments, just wanted to get some exposure for his guitars.
"When you're a small company," he explained via phone on the way to his son's baseball game, "it's hard to get instruments into an artist's hands." Print advertising is too expensive, he said, and as for actually paying high-profile musicians to use his product, no chance.
"So I thought it would be cool if I started to reach out to people that were maybe not big artists, but were identifiable by a large number of Internet users."
Singer contacted both Robinett and YouTube guitar shredder Paul Quenneville — alias 'Riffguy' — and offered to send both of them guitars — no strings attached. Both of the bloggers later made videos in which they jammed on the $700-plus instruments.
As usual, the YouTube peanut gallery was quick to criticize. "You are just a walking talkin billboard arent you?" wrote one commenter.
Hard to say. On the one hand, Renetto admits early in the video that he is a terrible player, and his rendition of "Amazing Grace" seems to bear that out.
On the other hand, Bob Singer says that he's been selling a bunch more guitars.