Inside the Mysterious Company Behind Those Baffling 5-Minute Crafts Videos
Where did these strange viral videos come from and who is making tens of millions of dollars a year from them?
I’m glued to YouTube, watching one of the most ridiculous life hacks imaginable from 5-Minute Crafts. A young woman has put clear soap cubes in a bowl and liquified them. She adds green food coloring to the mix, then pours it into a latex glove. She puts a suction cup into the open part of the glove. The soap mix solidifies again, holding the suction cup in place. She peels off the glove to reveal a green soap hand that she sticks to a wall in her bathroom above her sink. Human hand meets soap hand in an uncanny handshake, a few suds denoting that all is working exactly as it should be.
This has taken less than a minute to unspool on camera, backed by some poppy synth music. Now we see the same young woman, only this time her hands are getting tired as she scrolls on her phone while using the toilet. Ugh! What to do? Aha! A stroke of brilliance: She rests her phone on her underwear in order to watch a 5-Minute Crafts video on how to get your contact lens out of your eye using a Q-tip. We have achieved a bizarre life hack within its own bizarre life hack, a Droste effect for these internet times! And then we’re on to the next.
If you’ve never had the confusingly mesmerizing experience of watching a 5-Minute Crafts video, they are soothing in an ASMR kind of way while hitting your dopamine receptors just so with the constant surprise of what in the world will they do next?! The videos are laden with the before-and-after pleasures of a good home reno show, yet there’s so much more packed in: bright colors, oddly emphatic acting (no one speaks, but they definitely emote), and easy solutions to the slightest of problems, all set to impossibly cheery music. Often, they’re extremely weird. The effect is not quite of this world, yet familiar enough with it to make a green soap hand and call it a craft.
Since launching in 2016, 5-Minute Crafts has created more than 4,600 of these videos, which have been viewed more than 19 trillion times, and amassed more than 71 million subscribers, making it the 11th most followed channel on all of YouTube. According to social media statistics tracker the Social Blade, the channel is estimated to generate up to $11.7 million a year from YouTube ads alone. On Facebook, it has more than 100 million followers and counting, making it among the 15 most-followed pages on the social platform, ahead of Rihanna and Justin Bieber. It’s got another 44 million followers on Instagram. The videos have even inspired a whole side-industry of humorous takedown videos by popular YouTubers like Jarvis Johnson and Cody Ko.
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Yet there’s surprisingly little known about the creators behind the channel or about its parent company, TheSoul Publishing, based in Limassol, Cyprus. According to the company’s website, it runs at least eight popular YouTube channels, including Bright Side (how-to trivia, history, and knowledge), 123 GO! (fashion and beauty hacks), Avocado Couple (the animated rom-com adventures of two halves of an avocado), and Slick Slime Sam (a talking slime creature does science and DIY projects), producing content in 19 different languages across social media platforms including Facebook, TikTok, YouTube, Pinterest, and Instagram. While the company and its Russian founders Pavel Radaev and Marat Mukhametov have rarely spoken to the media, there’s been no shortage of speculation about the enterprise — and whether there’s something subversive, or even anti-American about it and those who run it. What exactly is this strange, globally distributed entity wrapped up in seductive colors and DIY enigmas?
As a DIY channel, which 5-Minute Craft purports to be, it’s not particularly DIY. There’s never a handy list of materials you need in order to complete the craft, no timing estimates, no step-by-step instructions.
The global DIY/home improvement retail market, already a multibillion-dollar industry prior to Covid-19, exploded during the pandemic and is expected to exceed $680 billion by 2025, according to the global market research firm Technavio. Yet, as a DIY channel, which 5-Minute Craft purports to be, it’s not particularly DIY. There’s never a handy list of materials you need in order to complete the craft, no timing estimates, no step-by-step instructions. Why five minutes? Some of these efforts would take days, yet the time in which we watch them get done is mere seconds. Still, there is a lot of cutting and gluing and bejeweling and dying in 5-Minute Crafts videos. (During some of them, I can’t help hearing my mother’s voice: Should you really be cutting or sewing your own clothing while wearing it?) Sometimes, you get the disclaimer: “This activity is performed by actors in a controlled environment. Please use caution if you plan to replicate.”
Teaching you how to do these crafts doesn’t seem to be the point — the videos exist purely to make sure you can’t look away. Put toothpaste on parchment, sprinkle baking soda on it, and it becomes a mint you can use to brush your teeth with. Sew two baseball caps together to create a handbag. Make a onesie into a crop top. Create fake braces out of earring backs and a rubber band? I see and raise you, childhood attempts with a bent paperclip!
Do these crafts and life hacks actually work? Are they even crafts, or life hacks, or DIY projects at all? It doesn’t seem to matter. Over and over, in the YouTube comments, there are hundreds of people asking others if they too watch the videos to fall asleep, or if they’re similarly obsessed, yet have never actually tried a craft at all. The answer is a resounding yes.
What is this thing that we can’t stop watching?
In 2018, when Rebecca Jennings of Vox first wrote about YouTube’s clickbaity DIY side, including 5-Minute Crafts — and the similarly high-traffic content factory Troom Troom — the channel had a mere 40 million subscribers. Today, that’s almost doubled. I ask how she got interested in these sites in the first place. “It was definitely a viral tweet,” she explains, “Where you cut off a piece of hair to make an eyeshadow brush.” She tweeted about it and then got lost in a YouTube hole. “I had no idea there was this massive underbelly devoted to bizarre crafts no one would ever do,” she says. “It made me realize how the YouTube algorithm rewards such things.”
The YouTube algorithm is cloaked in its own mystery, but YouTube channels like 5-Minute Crafts tend to succeed by leveraging keywords like “crazy hack,” “prank,” “DIY” — a “not really English garble of terms,” says Jennings — along with a “bright, wacky thumbnail,” say of an iPhone being inserted into a watermelon or Skittles being dumped into a waffle maker. Most importantly, they take advantage of the recommended videos algorithm. A Pew Research survey found that 81% of YouTube users watched recommended videos and 15% watched them regularly — even more so when it came to users age 18 to 29, which seems to be the targeted audience of 5-Minute Crafts. Once YouTube thinks it knows what you like, you’re going to keep seeing it, benefiting this type of addictive creator one-thousandfold.
“Cooking videos, videos where you mix paint together, videos where adults are unwrapping kids’ toys, or you cut into an object and its cake. We reach nirvana when we see them.”
As far as the content itself, what hits is predictable: “You look at what other things get massive views,” says Jennings, who estimates she’s watched hundreds, maybe thousands of these videos: “Cooking videos, videos where you mix paint together, videos where adults are unwrapping kids’ toys, or you cut into an object and its cake. We reach nirvana when we see them.” She adds, “I don’t this know a single adult who watches and is like, I believe this,” but she does worry about the impact on kids: “Anything that gets them hypnotized for this long, with this bizarre content — it’s adults making things for kids that maybe they shouldn’t be watching.”
According to Samantha Glickman, a clinical psychology postdoctoral fellow in the ADHD and Behavior Disorders Clinic at Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital at NYU Langone, whenever we experience something pleasurable (no matter our age), “there’s a release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that sends sensations to the frontal cortex, a message that we want to be doing more of that, that’s exciting, that’s rewarding in some capacity.” Plus, YouTube channels like these are particularly suited to the short attention spans of children (and adults, too), she says, noting that the autoplay feature makes it that much harder to stop watching.
But is the content actually useful? In February 2020, BBC technology reporter Chris Fox embarked on an investigation for @BBCClick, trying out recipes from YouTube channels including 5-Minute Crafts to find out if their so-called “kitchen hacks” — like putting an ear of corn in a paper bag into the microwave to make popcorn — really worked. Guess what: A lot of them didn’t. Others have debunked the videos, including food scientist Ann Reardon, who tests some of the cooking-related hacks on her YouTube channel. In one 5-Minute Crafts video, a rubber-gloved hand puts a strawberry in bleach to make a white strawberry. Even if that did work, a bleached strawberry shouldn’t be eaten, which a child might be tempted to do, Reardon notes. YouTuber Jarvis Johnson has also pointed out negligence when it comes to kids watching this stuff, especially when fire and power tools are involved.
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Danger aside, with 5-Minute Crafts, the absurdity seems to be the selling point. “There is one where the heel has come off a high-heeled shoe so a woman fixes it with strips of plastic from a 3D-printing pen that clearly wouldn’t hold the weight of a person,” Fox tells me. “Some of the tips are neither practical or better than doing something the normal way.” I think of one in which a woman realizes she’s forgotten to shave, runs to a bathroom, somehow procures a couple of caramels, a candle, and a spoon, and cooks her own hot wax, which she uses as a depilatory. Not only impractical, but also: ouch.
On TheSoul’s website, there’s an email address for media inquiries, so I compose an email asking for an interview, press send, and cross my fingers for a response. A day later, I’m pleasantly surprised to see a publicist reply. A phone call might be difficult due to schedules, I’m told. Eventually, we agree on an email interview, and I send over a list of questions about the company’s history, who runs it, and some of the more serious allegations that have been lobbed at them in recent years.
In 2019, Lisa Kaplan, founder and CEO of Alethea Group, a company that detects and mitigates disinformation for brands and individuals, wrote a piece titled “The Biggest Social Media Operation You’ve Never Heard of Is Run Out of Cyprus by Russians” for Lawfare, an online publication devoted to issues of national security. TheSoul, she wrote, “funds itself with ad revenues from YouTube and Google worth tens of millions of dollars. And in 2018, it purchased a small suite of Facebook advertisements targeting U.S. citizens on political issues — and it made those purchases in rubles.” She also points to videos that appeared on another YouTube channel run by TheSoul, SmartBanana — at 1.74 million subscribers, one of their smaller ones — claiming that Ukraine was part of Russia, giving a “heavily sanitized version” of Stalin’s reign, and suggesting that Nikita Khrushchev gave Alaska to the United States (not true). Then there was the video that included the U.S. on a list of “12 Countries That May Not Survive the Next 20 Years.”
The Rachel Maddow Show picked up Kaplan’s story, calling it another example of Russian attempts to sway the American public — and voters — using social media. After the story blew up, a number of videos were removed by TheSoul, which said it was reviewing its internal fact-checking process. In response to Kaplan’s request for comment, TheSoul said it created “fun, non-political oriented content that is enjoyed by an incredible amount of fans globally” and that “one should not jump to conclusions or automatically make assumptions that there is a hidden agenda.” (TheSoul also published a statement denying that it produced propaganda or worked for any government entities. And YouTube found no evidence of abuse.)
Yotam Ophir, PhD, assistant professor in the department of communication at the University at Buffalo, has done work in misinformation effects and correction, including a paper in 2020 titled “Russian Twitter Accounts and the Partisan Polarization of Vaccine Discourse, 2015–2017.” He tells me he doesn’t see evidence that 5-Minute Crafts’ channels are being used for propaganda, but adds that most propaganda seems benign at first. “We have a study that we did on the IRA [the Russian Internet Research Association] and we found that before they started talking about Clinton and Donald Trump, they did a lot of other things that tried to mask their avatars as real Americans: They talked about vaccines, the NFL, BBQ, Maria Sharapova. It’s just a foot-in-the-door kind of tactic. It has to be interesting enough and look normal enough for people to keep you in their friend list, and when need comes, these sleeper operatives are activated.”
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Five days after I send TheSoul my questions facilitated through their publicist, I’m forwarded responses from its COO, Arthur Mamedov, who seems to be the de facto spokesperson for the company.
First, he explains, the company’s history: In 2003, TheSoul Publishing was founded by co-CEOs Radaev and Mukhametov, who launched AdMe, one of the first ad-focused, informational websites in Russia. Over time, it transitioned into “entertainment-style” content, eventually growing into a number of channels including 5-Minute Crafts, which in 2015 was formally launched on Facebook. The company now has 1,700 employees across 70 countries, with offices or studios in Cyprus, Russia, Latvia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, with 80% of its workers — including researchers, animators, editors, sound mixers, translators, voice-over artists, and more — working remotely. The company is headquartered in Cyprus, Mamedov says, in part to better allow them to “tap into a diverse talent pool across multiple global locations,” attracting “talent from the wider European region as well as the Mideast, CIS, and Africa.” Plus, perched on the Mediterranean coast, it’s “simply a beautiful place to live, work, and raise a family,” he adds.
In the summer of 2020, TheSoul collaborated with Mattel on DIY-style crafts presented by “Barbie and 5-Minute Crafts,” and even won a Media Excellence Award for the campaign.
Here’s how the 5-Minute Crafts assembly line actually works, he says: “Each channel has a dedicated team who develop the ideas. Once approved, there’s a period of research, script writing, an initial quality assurance review and then filming in our studios with our team of actors or animating the video. This is of course followed by editing, voiceovers, graphics, additional quality assurance checks and finally uploading to the platforms. On average, it takes about 2–3 weeks time to create each piece of content, and during that time it is touched by more than a dozen people from all around the world.”
TheSoul does not disclose earnings, but Mamedov says it makes money using a variety of business models, including advertising, both through social tools like Facebook in-stream ads and YouTube pre-roll, as well as directly through their own and operated websites. The company also works with brands and agencies to create sponsored videos, integrating their products into content. For instance, in the summer of 2020, TheSoul collaborated with Mattel on DIY-style crafts presented by “Barbie and 5-Minute Crafts,” and even won a Media Excellence Award for the campaign. (Mattel did not respond to a request for an interview.) The company has also experimented with subscription models and sponsorships as well as merchandising, says Mamedov.
When it comes to the DIY hacks: “Our content is not intended to be a resource for fact-finding, but rather a source of entertainment. Still, our quality assurance team is involved throughout the process at making sure our content is not misleading or dangerous in any way,” he says. In response to the allegations of Russian misinformation, he says, “Political content plays absolutely no role in the content produced by TheSoul Publishing.” He references the 2019 Smart Banana fumble involving misleading pro-Russian information that Kaplan wrote of, but says in the end it helped tighten up the company’s quality controls. “Of the thousands of pieces of content we created, those factually incorrect videos made up a very very small percentage — less than .001%. Regardless they should not have been uploaded.”
One thing is clear: TheSoul is growing fast, ranked number one in views across media and entertainment properties by the digital video ratings company Tubular for January 2021 — ahead of ViacomCBS, The Walt Disney Company, Sony Pictures, and Warner Media. Vox’s Jennings isn’t surprised, predicting this success back in 2018. “If algorithms are not modified, this will go to the top. It’s this and porn videos,” she tells me. BBC’s Fox says that channels that pump out fake recipes and crafts make it harder for “legitimate channels” to compete.
How do these little bits of untruth everywhere, fissures in the cracks of our universal reality, start to infect us all?
I ask Jonah Berger, marketing professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and author of the book Contagious: Why Things Catch On: What is the power of all this virality? What can it do? “Once you’ve built an audience, in this case, subscribers,” he says, “there are many ways to leverage that.”
Meanwhile, I’ve been wondering about the dangers in seemingly innocuous “misinformation:” those hacks that will never work outside of a studio. Granted, in the YouTube descriptions, and sometimes in the 5-Minute Crafts videos themselves, you’ll find caveats like, “This video is made for entertainment purposes. We do not make any warranties about the completeness, safety and reliability. Any action you take upon the information on this video is strictly at your own risk, and we will not be liable for any damages or losses.” But how do these little bits of untruth everywhere, fissures in the cracks of our universal reality, start to infect us all?
The 5-Minute Craft that breaks me and puts me back together is in a video called “Pretty hairstyles that will make you a star / Useful girly tricks.” A woman can’t decide what to wear out of two oversized short-sleeved button-down shirts, the blue or the pink one, a dilemma I’m sure we’ve all faced. But rather than be made to choose, she buttons them together into one pink-and-blue wrap-around maxi-shirt with the tails of the shirts poking out like a strange butterfly half in and half out of its cocoon. I replay it over and over, trying to figure out how she did that, and then I ponder what it means: Is this the having it all allegory we’ve been waiting for?
I’d asked Mamedov, “What do you think makes 5-Minute Crafts so successful?” He said they’d noticed, especially with the pandemic, “people are gravitating towards positive content that can help inspire creativity in their everyday lives… to help pass the time, offer a fun distraction, and simply ease the pressure of lockdown.”
As much as you might scoff at the fun distraction of it, or worry there’s something darker at its root, he’s not wrong. The videos are positive, perhaps even inspirational, in their oddly satisfying way. Over and over again, they confirm that everything you need is right there inside of you, inside of your purse, inside of your 3D pen, or, if you rip your pants, inside of the shirt that your pants have now become simply by turning them upside down and wearing them on your torso rather than your legs. Whatever life throws at you, it’s fixable. Whatever’s wrong will be made right again — and then it’s on to the next video.