YouTube’s top influencers have cashed in on highly lucrative sponsorship deals to promote an online gambling company to their young fans, and YouTube doesn’t have a problem with it.
In recent weeks, celebrity YouTubers Jake Paul, Bryan “RiceGum” Le and others have faced fierce backlash after uploading videos to their wildly popular channels featuring MysteryBrand.net, a website that lets users pay for a chance to win a variety of prizes.
People who are 13 or older can sign up on MysteryBrand.net to buy virtual “mystery boxes,” which range in price from $1.99 to more than $1,299.99, and are marketed to contain an item from brands including Apple, Ralph Lauren, Xbox, Gucci, Supreme, Nike and Rolex. After paying for a box, users can open it on-screen to reveal their prize, then either order the item for delivery or sell it back (typically at a much lower price than the cost of the box) to receive online credit and try again. They can also select prizes to create their own box with customized odds, which tend to be far more expensive. Little information about Mystery Brand is publicly available, though the website states its terms and conditions are subject to Polish laws.
“You could get a pile of shit or you could get a Rolls-Royce,” 21-year-old Paul, YouTube’s second-highest-paid star, told his 17.7 million subscribers in a recent video sponsored by Mystery Brand. “I want you guys to go to MysteryBrand.net right now and play this game and tell me or tweet me or something if you guys win this, OK?” urged Paul, who said in 2018 that his YouTube audience is primarily comprised of 8- to 16-year-old kids.
‘It’s Just A Scam’
MysteryBrand.net, which is riddled with grammatical errors, quietly removed its top prizes ― including beach vacations, premium California real estate and luxury vehicles ― following a maelstrom of scam accusations on social media in the wake of Paul and Le’s viral videos. Its now-deleted photo of a $250 million “Most Expensive Los Angeles Realty” mansion was actually an image of a $188 million Bel Air home, The Daily Beast and others reported. And until recently, Mystery Brand’s prize list included a 2018 Lamborghini Centenarió ― only 40 of which have ever been produced (all prior to 2018). The same goes for its “Real Car Rolls-Royce Phantom 2018” ― no such car was made last year.
After people called the website out on Twitter, it took down a section of its terms and conditions that stipulated it could refuse to issue prizes to users who don’t claim them within one hour. Angry reviews on Reddit and Mystery Brand’s Facebook page claim some users received fake merchandise or never got their prize items at all. Critics, including controversial Swedish YouTube influencer PewDiePie, who has stoked outrage over his anti-Semitic videos in the past, have raised another issue: In their promotional posts, Paul and Le curiously won items of far higher value than unsponsored users did in their Mystery Brand videos. Le quickly won an $11,000 Chanel purse which, according to odds listed on MysteryBrand.net, he had a less than 0.17 percent chance of doing.
“Mystery Brand is like gambling. It was very addictive.”
Ian Yael, a 21-year-old university student from Mexico City, spent hundreds of dollars and opened nearly 20 boxes on MysteryBrand.net before winning a $1,100 Louis Vuitton pocket knife and ordering it for delivery in mid-October. But three months later, the item has not even been processed for shipping, his account shows.
“Mystery Brand is like gambling. It was very addictive,” Yael said. “But it’s just a scam.” In messages viewed by HuffPost, he contacted the website several times to request an update or refund. A representative who goes by the name Tim Perk repeatedly assured Yael, month after month, “Everything regarding your order is fine,” and “[it] should be coming soon!”
In the U.S., gambling is generally defined as paying to place a bet or wager to win a lottery or other prize, and is restricted for minors. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit has ruled that internet gambling on a game of chance is not prohibited by law, however the Justice Department maintains that all internet gambling by parties in the U.S. is illegal. Within the European Union, there is no broad policy on gambling regulation, so each member state enforces its own laws.
Perk claimed in an emailed statement to HuffPost that the site isn’t a scam and its service is not equatable to gambling because other companies sell packages with unknown contents, too.
“Mystery Brand is not much different from those projects, except for the fact that we make the whole process of buying and receiving items from a Mystery Box fast and transparent in real time,” said Perk. He added: “Sometimes, shipping may take up to a couple of weeks since we mostly use the [online marketplace] StockX platform for purchasing and delivering prizes.”
StockX was completely unaware of MysteryBrand.net, a representative told The Verge, adding that no formal partnership between the companies exists. Digital marketplace G2A cut ties with the website last week amid the scam and gambling allegations.
Yael, who spends several hours per day on YouTube, said he learned about MysteryBrand.net from trending videos on “Marco and Alvin,” a popular YouTube channel that has featured the website dozens of times since early October. The videos are supposedly unsponsored, but still profit from ad revenue through YouTube’s general monetization program.
YouTube’s community guidelines claim the Google-owned company is “constantly working to keep YouTube free of spam, scams, and other deceptive practices that attempt to take advantage of the YouTube community.” But the video giant declined to answer why it allows monetized videos promoting a shady gambling website on channels geared to kids and teens.
“Creators should be transparent with their audiences if their content includes paid promotion of any kind,” a Google spokesperson told HuffPost, without addressing specific questions about Mystery Brand videos.
HuffPost confirmed that YouTube’s algorithm has promoted Mystery Brand videos, giving them traction and potentially increasing ad revenue for both Google and the content creators. As the hosts of “Marco and Alvin” explained in a recent post, mystery box content helped them go viral and earn money: “We were nothing before Mystery Brand. We were at 1,700 subscribers before we actually did our first Mystery Brand video,” they said. “Through Mystery Brand’s name we have been able to grow ... and actually start doing YouTube for a living.” They now have nearly 70,000 subscribers, and recently apologized for pushing a scam.
Paul and Le respectively pulled in around 2 million and 2.6 million views on their promotional Mystery Brand YouTube videos in one week. Content creators can earn an estimated rate of up to $5 per 1,000 views on the platform from ads. After coming under fire, Paul addressed the controversy in a pair of snarky tweets last week before reminding children not to gamble. Le filmed a subsequent video acknowledging he was “somewhat in the wrong” for doing business with Mystery Brand, lamenting other YouTubers had done the same in the past without major scrutiny, and complaining the ordeal had been blown out of proportion. Neither Paul nor Le responded to HuffPost’s requests for comment.
‘Imagine How Much They Offered Me’
YouTube stars have made big money directly through Mystery Brand sponsorship deals. Daniel “Keemstar” Keem, a YouTuber with 4.7 million subscribers, claimed he declined a $100,000 offer from a similar company to promote its service on his channel. Le, who has 10.8 million subscribers, suggested Mystery Brand paid him well above that amount for his sponsored video.
“Apparently they only offered Keemstar $100K. My [subscriber] numbers are higher, so imagine how much they offered me,” Le said in his apparent apology post, attempting to explain why he had agreed to do the promotion. “The money was on the table and if I wanted the money I just had to open up a few Supreme boxes and shoe boxes and boom, I get the money. So I’m like, ‘Yo, that sounds easy enough.’”
Yeezy Busta, a YouTube influencer with 448,000 subscribers who asked not to use his real name for privacy reasons, confirmed to HuffPost that Perk from Mystery Brand offered him a sponsorship deal for tens of thousands of dollars in July. After doing some research into the website and deciding it was a scam, he turned it down.
“It was hard to say no to the money, but I felt like in my position it was better for me to save hundreds if not thousands of people from losing hundreds if not thousands of dollars,” he said. “It really hurts me to see so many kids losing their money. A hundred dollars to me or to other creators isn’t a whole lot, but to these kids it might be their savings or their holiday money.”
Content creators should do their due diligence and take responsibility for what they promote, he added. “Every YouTube creator wants to influence their fans in a positive way, but sometimes a check can change people’s minds.”