Ryan Kaji, the Boy King of YouTube

Shion held out a little longer, but he, too, eventually left his job to manage his son’s business. “I started to feel like I was the dead weight in the family,” Shion told me. Ryan needed full support from both parents. “So that’s when I realized, OK, we need to kind of step back, and we have to see how we can support Ryan in his branding.”

Shion and Loann noticed that a lot of kid YouTube channels were focused more on the brand of the toy than on the brand of the talent. They were, in plainer terms, just adding “Thomas the Train” to their titles and hoping that other kids who wanted to consume every single video about Thomas the Tank Engine would stumble upon their content. Shion thought this was backward. Ryan, not the toys, should be the brand. Shion was proposing an interesting evolution: 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, ramp up merchandising and license your content to some of the biggest platforms in the world? “People are watching Ryan, not the toy he’s showing,” Shion says. “So, oftentimes, we create a new original, animated character that’s 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 put in extensive appearances in all these videos; sometimes he just gives a short introduction. In one recent video, the action starts with Ryan in his backyard holding a rubber ball. He tosses it halfheartedly in the air, watches it bounce and then says that Peck and Combo — two of the cartoon characters in Ryan’s World — are going to teach viewers about gravity. He’s on camera for all of 35 seconds.

Loann and Shion say that cameos like this are their way of limiting the amount of time Ryan needs to be on camera, which is their main concern these days. Still, there’s little doubt that he has 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 more videos of a cute kid playing with toys. Right now, as I am typing this, the latest entry in the Ryan’s World feed is an hourlong video in which Ryan is present for a vast majority of the screen time. He gives a few scientific facts about the strength of spiders, plays with some toys and is his usual, charming self, all while wearing a Ryan’s World T-shirt.

In 2017, the Kajis established a partnership with Pocket.watch, a licensing company headed by a former executive from the Walt Disney Company. Pocket.watch handles the Ryan’s World franchise, including the deals with Walmart, Amazon and Skechers. But even as the family enterprise was expanding, Shion says, most viewers at that time still wanted to see Ryan play with familiar toys. So, Ryan continued to do — and generate a great deal of revenue from — what he had always done: picking up a popular toy and playing with it on camera. In 2019, Truth in Advertising, a consumer watchdog group, filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, accusing the Kajis of “deceiving millions of young children” by not adequately disclosing their advertisers. (A spokeswoman for the family said that they “strictly follow all platforms’ terms of service and all existing laws and regulations, including advertising-disclosure requirements.”) The brand, which has continued to profit from sponsored content on its YouTube channels, also makes money from its line of Ryan’s World toys, multiple deals with streaming networks and licensing deals.

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

Last summer, I traveled with my daughter to Simi Valley, Calif., for a taping of the Nickelodeon show “Ryan’s Mystery Playdate,” a half-hour-long, professionally produced recapitulation of many of the motifs from Ryan’s YouTube videos. The night before the shoot, 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 wouldn’t she like him? But I admit I did feel slightly disappointed. Over the next few days, I had her sample a bit more from the Ryan Kaji media empire: A science lesson in which Ryan and his little twin sisters mix baking soda and vinegar; a game of tag played between Loann and Ryan; and the giant-egg video that started it all. She, of course, liked the egg the best.


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