YouTube’s Weirdest Merch is a $350 Lifelike Doll of a Two-Week Old Baby

This article was originally published here by Chris Stokel-Walker

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Look up the “expand your brand” chapter of the unofficial YouTuber handbook, and you’ll see in big, bold letters advice to diversify your income by offering audiences the chance to buy merchandise.

Kings of the YouTube merch machine are the Paul brothers, Jake and Logan, who shill their merchandise to audiences every 2 minutes   in their videos. (The younger Paul brother even added a merch cannon to the top of a tour bus, the better to fire overpriced t-shirts at impressionable fans.)

In the UK, Upload Merch — an offshoot of YouTube live event company Upload Events — is already gearing up to ship 150,000 products to fans this Christmas, its founder, Stuart Jones, told me.

“Merchandise is becoming more and more important to influencers as CPM [clicks per mille, the standard metric for online adverts] rates have dropped in recent years,” he explains.

Stock-in-trade for YouTubers is t-shirts, snapback hats and pop sockets — the latter of which is a good, entry-level product for young audiences who can’t afford to splurge several weeks’ pocket money on a t-shirt.

Nowhere in the unofficial YouTuber handbook does it advise you to commission and sell a creepily lifelike version of your youngest child.

And yet.

In a 27-minute vlog, the Ingham Family (whose patriarch has previously faced accusationof creeping on their teenage fans, claims he denies) announced the release of their latest merch: a 19-inch tall, soft-bodied recreation of their youngest son, Jace.

The eerily lifelike doll — called in the doll world a “reborn” — captures Jace Ingham at the age of two weeks. It comes with three outfits, a hat, dummy with clip, nappies, “birth certificate”, gift bag and pen.

The doll will cost you $US350 though you can upgrade your purchase to include a hamper of branded merch for your doll, including a soft dog toy and what appears to be a towel for your lifelike — but ultimately fake — doll to be sick on.

Alongside having a realistic representation of the youngest child of your favorite YouTube family, buying a Jace reborn also gives you the chance to meet the Ingham Family at a special tea party, according to the retailer.

Reborn dolls do serve a purpose — and some of the comments on the Facebook page of the manufacturer, York-based company Mary Shortle would indicate they’re being used for this use. Reborn dolls can help grieving parents cope with the loss of their children; one commentator said that they’d be buying the doll after losing their own baby in 2013.

But the reason the Inghams are selling a $350 replica of their youngest child isn’t to help grieving parents cope.

It’s to give fans the opportunity to hold Jace in their own arms.

“The lifelike replica may be marketed as supporting grieving families, however what other purposes might a lifelike figure of a baby be used for?” asks Joanne Orlando, a researcher at Western Sydney University looking at technology’s effect on children.

“Online security has never been more important and the privacy and safety issues for Jace are overwhelming- short and long term. This move shows more than more than ever we not only need regulation of the content of children produce and engage with online but also of the merchandise that involves them,” she adds.

“Selling a replica of a two-week-old baby crosses the line in my opinion and it’s surprising that the Ingham Family are comfortable with selling a replica of their child,” says Jones. “I certainly wouldn’t feel comfortable retailing a similar product for any of our talent.”

But still, the Ingham family are doing so.

The NSPCC, a charity protecting children, declined to comment for this story, while the doll’s manufacturer did not respond in time to questions about the number of dolls sold so far.

The dolls tug at the parasocial interaction — the link between digital creators and their obsessive fans, which sees them considered friends or family members rather than a transactional relationship between a product buyer and manufacturer — for viewers.

“In a lot of ways, this is commodifying a child,” says Leslie Rasmussen, associate professor at Xavier University. “ He’s essentially turned into a commodity to strengthen the family’s YouTube business/relationships.” But there’s something more concerning to Rasmussen — who says “this is so far out there I’m having a hard time articulating my thoughts.”

“I can only image super fans would buy it, which is, for lack of a better word, creepy,” says Rasmussen. “People have parasocial interactions and start to develop a pseudo relationship, which turns into a parasocial relationship. I believe people who might purchase a lifelike doll of their favorite YouTuber’s baby have to be deep into the pseudo relationship.”

She worries that literally holding an artificial version of the youngest child of your favorite YouTube family could engender an alarming sense of belonging. “It might raise a bigger question: is this inviting stalkers or other dangers?” she asks. “If the parasocial relationship is so intense that a person is prompted to buy a doll like this, what’s next? Does the parasocial relationship have the potential to become an obsession?”