Only 2, and already social media influencers

Mila (left) and Emma Stauffer, two-year-old twins who have done advertising work for companies such as Amazon, Macy's and Walmart. They became stars after appearing in a video on their mother's Instagram page that garnered 4.4 million views.
Mila (left) and Emma Stauffer, two-year-old twins who have done advertising work for companies such as Amazon, Macy's and Walmart. They became stars after appearing in a video on their mother's Instagram page that garnered 4.4 million views.PHOTO: INSTAGRAM/KCSTAUFFER

New class of viral video stars are getting noticed by marketers

NEW YORK • Mila and Emma Stauffer, two-year-old twin sisters who live with their parents and three older siblings near Phoenix, were sitting on the floor, having a discussion about what they might be when they grow up. "Maybe a teacher?" Emma said.

"Emma, you hate kids," Mila said.

"How about a doctor?" Emma suggested.

"Emma, you hate blood," her sister said.

"Oh yep, I hate blood," Emma said.

The video of this conversation was filmed by their 14-year-old sister Kaitlin earlier this year. It originally appeared on their mother's Instagram page, where it has since been viewed 4.4 million times.

Mila and Emma are two breakthrough stars of a new class of social media celebrities: young children who appear in viral videos. In many of the most popular clips, these whippersnappers engage in adult-like conversations - amusing, given their babyish voices. The videos can be incredibly popular. And marketers have noticed.

KIDS SAY THE DARNDEST THINGS

The kids are insane, throwing staplers, pooping everywhere!

MILA STAUFFER, describing her experience visiting a pre-school in a mashup video with Mr Zoie Fenty, a former Starbucks shift supervisor who now earns a living making videos.

Mila and Emma have done advertising work for Amazon, Macy's and Walmart, among other companies. They're flying to New York this month to shoot video spoofs of movies such as Clueless and Mean Girls for Harper's Bazaar.

"It's really lucrative," said their mother, Mrs Katie Stauffer. "But I wish people knew that this is my job now." And the talent can be difficult. Emma does not love making videos, and Mila wants to make them only when she wants to. Mrs Stauffer has stopped cutting deals with companies that insist on giving her deadlines. "You can't make two-year-olds do anything," she said.

Instead, she stages photo shoots many times a week, during which the girls do toddler things: make princess cakes, drag dolls dressed like the twins, or sit in wagons in front of the family's stately home.

The images are then posted to Mrs Stauffer's 2.2 million followers. Recently, a Stauffer video got a coveted repost from Kris Jenner, perhaps the ultimate authority on building daughters' brands. "#iminlove," Jenner wrote.

Social media star Ross Smith, 25 (he has four million Facebook followers, 1.5 million on Instagram, and an average Snapchat post gets about one million views), has collaborated with several children.

"Kids are the new social influencers," he said. He is not a parent, but he understands the instinct to seize on corporate offers when they arise. "Kids grow up and become less relevant. The sweet spot is between two and four," after which, he said, "they're not that cute."

Mr Smith lives in Columbus, Ohio, and is best known for videos he shoots with his 91-year-old "Granny". They have worked with Mila, making a video of Granny giving her dating advice. It was posted in September and has been viewed more than 31 million times on Mr Smith's Facebook page.

He has also teamed up with Korbin Jackson, a three-year-old from Dothan, Alabama, who is best known for his soccer and ping-pong ball trick-shot videos.

Their video pitted Korbin against his sparring partner (whose T-shirt said, "Straight Outta the Nursing Home") in a trick-shot battle. It has been viewed 18 million times on Mr Smith's Facebook page. To film it, he flew Korbin and his parents to Ohio. Upon arriving, Korbin needed a nap, so production was halted for an hour or so. "It's hard to work with kids, but it's fun," Mr Smith said.

Korbin got his start in social media after his parents made accounts to share videos and pictures of him with friends and family. His father, a former professional football player with his own large social media following, began to post videos of the bespectacled, ebullient child doing sports tricks.

Ten of Korbin's videos have been featured on ESPN, and he has been interviewed by news stations in Japan and Romania. His Instagram feed has nearly 65,000 followers.

Born with a disability, Korbin spent 21/2 years doing physical therapy. "He finds so much joy and happiness in life, and we are so proud to share his good energy," said his mother, Mrs Stephanie Jackson.

She said when Korbin arrives at school with his father, the older children surround him and ask to take selfies with him. "When Korbin gets to high school, his following will be huge," she said. "That Instagram just set him up for greatness."

Korbin receives a lot of free stuff in the mail, and his parents often tag the brands in posts. Unsolicited, Mrs Jackson said, GoPro sent about US$2,000 (S$2,730) worth of camera equipment. Many sportswear companies sent packages. Korbin's feed frequently promotes Under Armour. "They send him boxes once a month," his mother said. "It's not a paper deal, it's not a contract, they are inspired by him."

She tries to limit the number of people who know the family's home address. "We do get weird e-mails and DMs (direct messages) like 'We will meet him no matter what you say'," Mrs Jackson said.

In May, a video of him putting out a candle on a birthday cake by kicking a ball that hits and extinguishes the flame went viral. His parents sold the licensing rights to Jukin Media, and took him to the bank to open an account in his name, where any payment related to his videos would be deposited. He has earned about US$5,000. "That's Korbin's money, not ours," Mrs Jackson said.

Laws that regulate children's rights to money earned by parents using their images on social media are not clear, lawyers say. In California, the so-called Coogan Law - named for child star Jackie Coogan, who worked with Charlie Chaplin in The Kid - mandates that a portion of money earned by child actors be placed in a trust for the children.

But the law is written about children who are employed or placed under contract with third parties. When parents are paid by brands to post images and videos of their children on social media, or they make money from YouTube ads, are the children owed anything?

"These are uncharted waters," said Mr Anthony Amendola, a partner at Los Angeles law firm Mitchell Silberberg & Knupp.

Mr Zoie Fenty, a former Starbucks shift supervisor in Atlanta who now earns a living making videos, has done mashups of himself FaceTiming with youngsters in viral videos, including Mila. As she described her experience of visiting a pre-school ("The kids are insane, throwing staplers, pooping everywhere!"), Mr Fenty appears in the bottom left corner of the screen, shaking his head in sympathy and horror.

"Kids are entertaining. They don't care what anyone thinks," he said in a phone interview. "There used to be a show called Kids Say The Darndest Things. This is it today."

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 09, 2017, with the headline 'Only 2, and already social media influencers'. Print Edition | Subscribe