Framing is often key to escaping a hairy situation, chiefly if the person at the center of it is accused of a despicable act.
Public relations exists to combat perception, and the moves are always changing. Maybe it’s a company taking out a full-page ad in The New York Times’ Sunday paper, or a billboard overlooking the 405 in Los Angeles. And sometimes those PR moves are high-profile documentaries that reframe an entire event using a medium known for dealing in “nonfiction.”
In his latest vlog, controversial YouTube personality Logan Paul announced that he was working on a documentary about his mindset around the time that he entered the Aokighara forest in Japan and filmed the body of a man who had committed suicide. Public outcry over the incident prompted Paul’s team taking down the Aokigahara forest video hours after posting, and led to the video creator losing his premium partnership with YouTube, his YouTube Red series, and a wave of demonetized videos.
A teaser for the documentary, which appeared in Paul’s new vlog, hints at an introspective video that will explore where his head was before and after the incident. Paul will likely touch on the topic of burnout — a very real, growing concern in the YouTube community. At the time, Paul was publishing a vlog a day, touring, and partnering with other creators like his brother Jake Paul for separate videos. He was busy, and no one will deny that part of his life at the time.
The documentary will also see Paul in control of the narrative, tweaking the criticism and emotional pitch of the post-mortem as he sees fit. Paul has apologized for his actions, admitting there’s no excuse for why he decided to upload the video and confessing he wasn’t really thinking at the time. He even produced a smaller documentary on suicide awareness following a three-week hiatus from YouTube after facing mass criticism for his insensitive video. The follow-up continues his apology tour on his own terms. While an interview might be more candid, it’s also risky; Paul has all but avoided sit-downs during the scandal, bar one sit-down piece with Good Morning America!.
“I’m actually filming a documentary about everything that’s happened this year, all the stuff that went down in January, where I was at in my life and kind of the psyche of what actually happened,” Paul said in the vlog at the top of the page.
More and more, “documentaries” — which on YouTube tend to be shorter in length, run in multiple parts, and a little more amateur than traditional documentaries — are becoming the dignified response from YouTube creators who need to serve a growing fanbase, assuage critical onlookers, or simply build the next level of celebrity.
KSI, one of YouTube’s most popular creators and the founder of YouTube’s new amateur boxing scene, is also working on a documentary. His documentary will tell the story of how KSI got involved with boxing and amateur sports as a creator, exploring his extracurricular events that have netted him an impressive profit. This documentary, unlike Paul’s, isn’t trying to necessarily redeem himself. He’s at the height of his career.
The documentary will be released two weeks before KSI’s most anticipated event in his career: a boxing match with Logan Paul in Manchester, England in August. The documentary’s sole purpose is to make KSI look good ahead of his match, bring in more viewers and sell more tickets and merchandise. KSI will profit from the documentary and raise awareness about himself, his channel, his YouTube group (Sidemen) and sell thousands of t-shirts in the process.
Not all sales pitches are for tangible items. Shane Dawson, one of the most beloved and respected personalities on YouTube, has begun publishing documentaries centering on specific YouTubers and events, and ultimately sell the sanctity of his brand with a more prestigious packaging.
His most recent three-part documentary series focuses on TanaCon, the disastrous fan-festival organized by YouTuber Tana Mongeau in retaliation to VidCon. Dawson was one of the creators who agreed to join Mongeau, a friend, at TanaCon, and host a meet-and-greet with thousands of fans. TanaCon was shut down well before Dawson could ever take the stage, let alone meet people. He spent the weekend apologizing to people on Twitter for a nightmarish get together he had no control over.
Throughout the three-part series, countless measures are taken to prove that Dawson was not to blame for the TanaCon disaster. He invites a couple of fans into his house, listens to their stories and hangs out with them for an afternoon. He listens to his good friend, Tana Mongeau, cry as he gets emotional with her, reiterating that he’s looking into the hellish con because he loves her so much as a friend. Angered participants weren’t blaming Dawson for TanaCon, but the documentary series makes Mongeau, who participated in the documentary, look like a victim of poor management, and Dawson himself into something of a martyr.
The poignant, calculated YouTube documentary trend recalls one of my personal favorite YouTube videos by Bobby Burns, a close friend and collaborator of Dawson’s, about audience manipulation — and seeing the little ticks that remind us this is all rehearsed for an audience to garner a specific reaction. Everything on YouTube is produced. It’s edited, carefully, to entertain an audience and shape a creator as this specific figure.
These YouTube documentaries could be genuine investigations of their creators’ lives. They could also be the latest extension of Burns’ comedic thesis. That’s up to the discerning viewer, who knows YouTube is a growing-yet-turbulent business, to decide. But the trend line is clear enough to predict how a new documentary will go over once it’s out there. Logan Paul will release his documentary, and his legion of fans will applaud him. KSI will release his documentary, and he’ll sell additional tickets or t-shirts during his upcoming fight. The documentaries will do what they intend, and be successful on their creators’ terms.