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For a couple of years there, YouTube was pure. Some of the stars you know and love today were camera shy. More people were going to YouTube to watch full episodes of Naruto than they were going to watch original content. Nobody was really making money while the website was exploding in popularity.

Some company had to be the first to take the leap. Some precocious marketer thought hey, wait a minute, if we have the budget to place advertisements on the site, why not pay a content creator to feature our product instead of producing boring banner ads? As far as who was the first content creator to receive any type of compensation for product placement in a video–your guess is as good as mine (but it was probably iJustine).

The first orchestrated, widespread influencer ad campaign on YouTube is something I remember clearly, and it’s something that must be preserved on the internet. The first time popular YouTubers “sold out” en masse was to lead the campaign for the Sanyo Xacti camera back in March 2009.

Sanyo’s marketing strategy was novel at the time. They reached agreements with about a half dozen of the most popular accounts on Youtube, which in aggregate reached less than four million subscribers, and if we care about uniqueness, that’s probably about 1.5 million subscribers. The agreement stipulated that the individuals would each post a video that was 100% dedicated to the new Sanyo Xacti camera, which was announced in January and released in March 2009.

First of all, I can’t think of a more ideal arena to promote a new camcorder than a fledgling video-sharing platform. Back in 2009, camera phones weren’t widespread. Those few phones that did take video took awful “potato” quality video. And if you were lucky enough to have parents who owned a digital camera, it was often difficult to figure out how it worked and export the files correctly.

Imagine that–the main thing holding back would-be creators was a lack of cameras.

The new lineup from Sanyo claimed to be groundbreaking. The high-end cameras in the lineup shot in “full HD,” which means 1080p. Some were fully waterproof. Some took 10-megapixel photos. All of the cameras shot in a digital format that was easy to work with.

The marketing campaign was highly effective. At the time, the average YouTube viewer probably subscribed to no more than 5 active channels. “Active” in 2009 meant something quite different than it does in 2020. What happened is that many notable YouTubers posted Sanyo Xacti promotional videos. For a span of several days in March, it was impossible to check your subscription box without catching what amounted to a Sanyo Xacti ad.

Yes, there are about three surviving news articles from that time period, but what’s most important here is that I clearly remember the Sanyo Xacti eleven years later. From my perspective, this was an incredible campaign. Though obtrusive, it worked and burned the image of the pistol-gripped camera into my mind. I considered asking my parents to buy me one.

Who Participated?

The official list provided by Adweek and other news sources included LisaNova, iJustine, AlphaCat, Rhett & Link, Mr. Safety, ApprenticeA, Brandon Hardesty. From my recollection and some other videos I found, Shane Dawson and ShayCarl were also involved.

Was This Good or Bad for YouTube?

Any YouTuber who ran ads for Sanyo probably had to deal with being called a sellout for the first time. This was the first time that a corporation penetrated YouTube and it was probably the first time that some of the more prolific content creators started to realize that they could make a living by making videos. Though the term sellout has negative implications, I consider this a YouTube gem because it was a transformative event for the platform with a net positive effect.

I see this as the epoch of several revelations:

  1. YouTube realized that advertisers could undercut them and work directly with creators. This definitely hurt YouTube’s bottom line and caused them to enact more strict guidelines for paid product placement
  2. The promotion of high-quality, straightforward digital cameras probably encouraged a lot of people to buy the cameras and start making videos. I’m sure that at least a few of the most popular accounts today started with a Sanyo Xacti. From all angles, this was a net positive for YouTube.
  3. Other companies realized that YouTube was a great way to get cost-effective exposure. Three months after the Sanyo campaign, we saw the Carl’s Juniors campaign.
  4. Some early-adopters may have felt disappointed in seeing the platform begin to be influenced by commercial interests. As a dude named Cooperstein said back in 2009 when referencing the Carl’s Juniors campaign: “If this is something brands continually do, there will be fatigue…  [but when] it feels organic to the creator’s voice, it’s hard for the audience to push back.” Couldn’t have said it better myself.

What About the Videos?

Most of the original videos no longer exist. I was surprised to see that a few had been preserved by other channels.

iJustine Original Video

It’s notable that this video only has 750k and also that it has 1.7k dislikes compared to 7k thumbs-ups.

ShayCarl and iJustine

Parody (?) by a very, very young Cutler35 with some clips from Shane Dawson, ShayCarl, and LisaNova

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