Ryan Kaji, YouTube’s Boy King

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Shion held out a little longer, but he too finally quit his job to run his son’s business. “I felt like the deadweight in the family,” Shion told me. Ryan needed the full support of both parents. “That’s when I realized, OK, we need to take a step back and see how we can help Ryan with his branding.”

Shion and Loann found that many children’s YouTube channels focused more on the brand of the toy than the brand of talent. They just added “Thomas the Train” to their titles in the hope that other kids who wanted to consume every single video about Thomas the Tank Engine would stumble upon their content. Shion thought that was backward. Ryan, not the toy, should be the brand. Shion suggested an interesting development: given Ryan’s popularity, why couldn’t he create his own brands, his own characters, his own toys? Why help Thomas when you can create your own universe of characters, diversify your content streams, increase merchandising, and license your content to some of the largest platforms in the world? “People watch Ryan, not the toys he shows,” says Shion. “That’s why we often create a new, original, animated character inspired by Ryan.”

Today Ryan’s World includes the separate channels “Combo Panda”, “Ryan’s World Español” and “Gus the Gummy Gator”. Ryan doesn’t appear extensively in any of these videos; sometimes he just gives a brief introduction. In a recent video, the action begins with Ryan holding a rubber ball in his back yard. He half-heartedly tosses it in the air, watches it bounce, then says that Peck and Combo – two of the cartoon characters in Ryan’s World – are going to teach the audience how to gravity. He’s in front of the camera for 35 seconds.

Loann and Shion say cameos like this are their way of limiting the amount of time Ryan takes in front of the camera, which is their main concern these days. However, there is no doubt that he spent most of his childhood being captured on video. Many of these appearances are banal; some are of dubious taste, like “Ryan’s First Business Class Airplane Ride To Japan”. Others are just videos of a cute kid playing with toys. Right now as I write this, the latest entry on Ryan’s World feed is a one hour video that shows Ryan the vast majority of the screen time. He shares some scientific facts about the strength of spiders, plays with some toys, and is his usual charming self while wearing a Ryan’s World t-shirt.

In 2017, the Kajis partnered with Pocket.watch, a licensing company run by a former manager of the Walt Disney Company. Pocket.watch handles the Ryan’s World franchise, including deals with Walmart, Amazon, and Skechers. But even as the family business expanded, most viewers still wanted to see Ryan play with familiar toys at the time, Shion says. So Ryan went ahead – and made a ton of income from it – what he had always done: pick up a popular toy and play with it in front of the camera. In 2019, Truth in Advertising, a consumer protection group, filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, accusing the Kajis of “deceiving millions of young children” by failing to adequately disclose their advertisers. (A family spokeswoman said they “strictly adhere to all platform terms of use and all existing laws and regulations, including advertising disclosure requirements.”) The brand, which continues to benefit from sponsored content on its YouTube channels, also makes money from its range of Ryan’s World toys, multiple deals with streaming networks, and licensing deals.

Today Sunshine Entertainment, the production company of Shion and Loann, has 30 employees. And the Kajis traded Houston for Hawaii. When I asked Loann why they moved, she said, “Well, I’ve always wanted to live in Hawaii and now that we can afford it, we thought: why don’t we just do it?”

I traveled last summer with my daughter to Simi Valley, California, for a recording of the Nickelodeon show “Ryan’s Mystery Playdate”, a half-hour, professionally produced reprise of many motifs from Ryan’s YouTube videos. The night before we started shooting, I asked my daughter to watch an old episode of the show on our iPad. She didn’t seem particularly interested at first, but when I moved to turn it off, she slapped my hand away and said she liked Ryan. Which didn’t surprise me – why shouldn’t she like him? But I admit that I was a little disappointed. Over the next few days, I got her sample a little more from the Ryan Kaji media empire: a science lesson in which Ryan and his little twin sisters mix baking soda and vinegar; a fishing game between Loann and Ryan; and the giant egg video that started it all. Of course, she liked the egg best.


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