MELISSA ROSE PONCE DE LEON, a 19-year-old bartender from the Bronx, had just gone shopping. When she got home she sat in her tiny peach-colored room, leaned into her Web cam and held up her swag: a few MAC lipsticks, a glittery black V-neck top, a snake bracelet and a new pair of Ugg boots.
“If you follow me on Twitter, you know I was Twittering about my dilemma,” she said earnestly to her audience. “Should I get the gray or should I get the black?” She held up a pair of black Uggs. Mystery solved.
This is a haul video, a phenomenon that has been sweeping YouTube for more than a year in which women, most of them young, methodically share their fashion and beauty purchases. The videos are the virtual equivalent of watching a girlfriend show off her finds after a shopping trip. And, in a recession, they fulfill a voyeuristic thrill: seeing how other people spend money.
Haul videos have also turned into a lucrative enterprise for some. Ms. Ponce De Leon, for instance, earns $1,000 a month through YouTube’s “partners” program, which gives members a share of the profits from advertisements that appear with their videos. Some haulers receive money from the companies whose products they review — usually in disclosed, sponsored posts, but sometimes under the table.
Haulers with corporate sponsors sometimes host contests, giving away products as a way to attract new subscribers. Sometimes the women are paid a commission: Maryapril Bautista of Los Angeles, for example, says she earns a 15 percent commission from a hair care company, Flat Iron Experts, on sales generated by her product reviews.
“We talk about a product, and then we give a link to the Web site,” said Ms. Bautista, who uses the screen name AprilAthena7. She makes less than $100 a month because her subscriber base is low, she said, “but a lot of those girls probably have 50,000 and make a couple of thousand a month doing that.”
The amount of money a hauler makes “depends on how many views you have,” said Margaret Healy, manager of strategic partnerships for YouTube. “The more monetizable views you have, the more money you are going to make, bottom line.”
Under Federal Trade Commission guidelines that took effect in December 2008, haulers must disclose if they received free products. But many of them don’t know this. “The companies should be telling the girls that they need to say that they got it for free, “ said Mary Engle, an F.T.C. spokeswoman. And the commercialization of hauling has hit some other stumbling blocks.
Teresa Ulrich, a hairdresser in Vancouver, British Columbia, was surprised when a small clothing company called Hot Miami Styles sent her an e-mail message asking that the review of the free clothes they had sent her be “positive.” Undaunted, she filmed an honest assessment. In her video she held up an awkwardly shaped blue item that was supposed to be a dress. “It’s so beyond bad, it’s bad, bad, bad,” she said. “It’s car-wash bad — as in, I’ll wash my car with it.”
After the video had been posted for only a few hours and viewed 5,000 times, the company e-mailed Ms. Ulrich, pressuring her to take it down, claiming two employees were fired because of the “drop in sales.” She refused. At 29, Ms. Ulrich says that she is less impressionable than most younger haulers. “I feel like it’s the integrity of the person, really,” she said. “I feel like when people get stuff for free, they lie.”
Lauren Luke, a role model to many haulers (she parlayed her YouTube videos into a career as a makeup artist with her own product line and TV show), agrees that money changes everything.
“When it all sort of started, there was a lot of people on there who told the truth more about a product because there was nothing to gain,” Ms. Luke said in an interview. “But now, there’s so many people getting free makeup products, and they’re on commission, that it’s really hard — for me, as well — to think, ‘O.K., who do I believe?’ ”
Two of the most successful haulers are Blair and Elle Fowler, sisters from Tennessee who have a combined half-million subscribers to their two YouTube channels. Reports say Blair is 16; Elle, 21. They are represented by an agent in Los Angeles, Shelly Marchetti.
A representative of a British accessories company, Secret Conquest, said by e-mail that Ms. Marchetti had asked that a “large reimbursement” be paid to Blair Fowler in exchange for a review. The review did not happen. The e-mail negotiations were posted on a Web site, which shows the amount was $500.
Darian Braun, the owner of a spray tan company called SunLove, said by telephone that he had paid Elle Fowler $4,000 for a review on the understanding that the payment was meant to cover editing costs. After a dispute, he said, Ms. Fowler took down the video.
Ms. Marchetti denied a request for an interview with the Fowlers and did not respond to a request for comment on SunLove or Secret Conquest. At press time, a publicist for the Fowler sisters, Merritt Loughran, sent an e-mail statement saying: “Elle and Blair choose to only work with brands and products that they like. Most of their reviews are non-paid, and for the ones that are, they provide full disclosure per F.T.C. requirements.”
Ms. Ponce De Leon said that based on the ways that companies had approached her, undisclosed payments between haulers and suppliers were probably routine. Although she does sometimes accept free products, she said, she does not take money. “I am very leery now of taking things for free and if I do take something for free, I really test it out for a while,” she said.
If Ms. Ponce De Leon takes her role seriously, there is a good reason: nearly 48,000 people have watched her 12-minute video about the Ugg boots. She has 131 videos — including reviews and tutorials — uploaded under the moniker MakeupByMel, that collectively have garnered nearly four million views.
She even has a parodist or two. In one video, an imitator plays up her resemblance to Snooki of “Jersey Shore” fame: The fake gum-snapping Ms. Ponce De Leon shares her purchases from Lush in an overly broad Noo Yawk accent. The gag is that she doesn’t seem to know anything about the products’ names or prices.
As for Ms. Ulrich, the Vancouver-based hauler, she is in talks about hosting a style program for a Canadian shopping Web site, and trills at the thought of hauling leading to a glamorous career. “That would be really amazing,” she said.
Then she caught herself with a philosophical thought, which seems to be a rarity among haulers. “When is it going to be enough stuff?” Ms. Ulrich asked. “When are we going to have enough?”