FTC Say Warner Bros Paid YouTubers For Positive Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor Videos

Warner Bros. paid “online influencers,” including PewDiePie, to post positive videos of Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor. The publisher have reached a settlement with the US Federal Trade Commission over their alleged failure to adequately disclose these payments, as announced by the FTC yesterday.

The statement continues:

Under a proposed FTC order announced today, Warner Bros. is barred from failing to make such disclosures in the future and cannot misrepresent that sponsored content, including gameplay videos, are the objective, independent opinions of video game enthusiasts or influencers.

“Consumers have the right to know if reviewers are providing their own opinions or paid sales pitches,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “Companies like Warner Brothers need to be straight with consumers in their online ad campaigns.”

The issue here is that Warner Bros., the FTC alleges, “instructed influencers to place the disclosures in the description box appearing below the video” instead of in the video itself. This meant the disclosures were only visible if viewers clicked the “Show More” button on the YouTube description. Of course, when the video was then embedded in other places – such as Facebook or Twitter – there was no “Show More” button at all.

The statement continues to outline the details of the settlement, which has rules for Warner Bros. to follow in future:

The proposed order settling the FTC’s charges prohibits Warner Bros. from misrepresenting that any gameplay videos disseminated as part of a marketing campaign are independent opinions or the experiences of impartial video game enthusiasts. Further, it requires the company to clearly and conspicuously disclose any material connection between Warner Bros. and any influencer or endorser promoting its products.

Finally, the order specifies the minimum steps that Warner Bros., or any entity it hires to conduct an influencer campaign, must take to ensure that future campaigns comply with the terms of the order. These steps include educating influencers regarding sponsorship disclosures, monitoring sponsored influencer videos for compliance, and, under certain circumstances, terminating or withholding payment from influencers or ad agencies for non-compliance.

This ruling will now “be subject to public comment for 30 days,” until August 10th, after which the FTC will decide whether to make it final. If they do, it will carry the force of law and any future violation “may result in a civil penalty.”

This ruling pertains to Warner Bros. alone, but they are not the only game publisher or developer to pay money to YouTubers in exchange for coverage. In 2014, Simon Parkin wrote an extensive feature about the subject for Eurogamer. The same year, the British Advertising Standards Authority warned YouTubers about making disclaimers visible. There have also been more recent controversies, such as in the case of CSGOLotto, a gambling website whose owners created YouTube videos in which they played and won items worth large sums of money without disclosing their ownership over the website they were using. Hopefully a ruling like this from the FTC prompts both game and video creators to be clearer about the nature of the work they’re creating.

The videos sponsored by Warner Bros. “were viewed more than 5.5 million times” according to the FTC, with 3.7 million of those views coming from PewDiePie’s video alone. That’s the video embedded below:

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47 Comments

  1. Rizlar says:

    Does anyone have a transcript for that video? I don’t watch the youtube normally but this one is so popular it seems culturally important.

    • Ross Angus says:

      I’ve got a print-out, if you want. It’s in the back of my truck.

  2. Freud says:

    Reviewers are always going to be dependent on publishers as long as their main avenue of income is advertisements from game companies. It might be more pronounced in some cases but I think it’s always in the back of the mind of those that evaluate games.

    I don’t think the review industry give 5/10 games reviews of 9/10 but they give 5/10 games 7.5/10 if it’s a big game from a big company, even if it deserves much less. They give a game 9/10 when it’s worth 8.2/10 if it’s from a big publisher with a lot of marketing muscle.

    Easiest way is to find reviewers who seems to have similar taste to you and trust their opinion.

    I agree with what RPS/Eurogame are doing and scrapping score. That way you escape the Metacritic gaze of the publisher and can something approaching proper games journalism.

    • montorsi says:

      This article is talking about WB paying youtube content producers to hype up their game and keep that relationship… obscured. You are talking about old school games reviewers.

      • Freud says:

        It’s of course more pronounced in this case since PewDiePie isn’t a reviewer but lives in the borderland between evaluator and entertainer.

        But Gamespot and IGN editors and reviewers know what pays the bills and that will affect what’s going on. Especially these days when it’s all about aggregate Metacritic score. Numbers matter and numbers will be adjusted.

    • froz says:

      In the real journalism you have (or used to have?) something called Chinese wall – a strict separation between content-producing part (journalists) and marketing part (selling ads), done exactly so that companies buying ads cannot affect articles themselves.

      link to en.wikipedia.org

      In case of youtubers, it could also work, if their only revenue was from youtube ads. But of course that is simply not enough, so they look for anything. Add to that the fact that it’s kind of survival of the fittest and you end up with what we have on youtube. Of course, as so very often is the case, the big winner is youtube itself.

      • thedosbox says:

        In the real journalism you have (or used to have?) something called Chinese wall

        I keep on seeing “journalism” brought up in these discussions – let’s clear this up.

        You’re right that journalists report on facts, and are meant to be impartial, hence the need to separate editorial and commercial considerations.

        However, reviewers offer opinions, which are always going to be biased based on their background and tastes. I think many people are fine with reviewers getting free product to review, so long as no strings are attached.

        • froz says:

          Well, reviewer in the past was just a kind of journalist and he or she would be provided with the product for reviewing by their employer. So, everything I said is still correct. Personally I expect RPS to be doing it the old way, with their reviewers having no connection with their ad-sales and not gaining anything from producer of the reviewed product.

          Of course you are right that youtubers are not journalists. I think they are also not reviewers. It’s actually hard to find a real review on youtube, most of it is similar to what Total Biscuit does, which is more sort of “first impression” video.

          • mattevansc3 says:

            I remember a while ago RPS said that their adverts were supplied by Eurogamer’s parent company so they have little say in what’s advertised. It may have changed since then.

            I’d disagree with the differentiation between TotalBiscuit and RPS. Both are providing evaluation, opinion and commentary on a game. The main difference is the format. RPS would give you the summation after completing the game whereas TotalBiscuit would give running commentary throughout a short section of the game.

            At that point you’ve gotten into mainstream vs tabloid vs gonzo journalism technicalities debates.

          • thedosbox says:


            Well, reviewer in the past was just a kind of journalist

            Most such individuals were given the title of “critics” – as in “film critic”, “theatre critic”, “music critic” etc. This was done to differentiate them from people who reported on news – aka journalists.

        • benthere says:

          I’m not terribly interested in the semantics among “reviewer”, “critic”, or “promoter”. Can we agree that when one is given money or access to play a game, that that should be acknowledged?

  3. SomeDuder says:

    In other news, water is wet, sky is blue.

    Fortunately, in this case it’s not that big a deal, since SoM was actually fun to play.

    • Nokturnal says:

      Woah, woah. Slow down. Which one is wet?

      • hamburger_cheesedoodle says:

        Opened my window, can confirm it is the sky.

    • njury says:

      If it was fun or not is not at all a part of this.

    • Jreengus says:

      The problem with saying the game was good so it’s okay this time is that it creates absolutely no incentive not to try this.

      After all if the game is bad shady stuff can pull in some extra purchases and help reduce the losses. And if the game is good, well the reception to Shadows of Mordor has shown it won’t hurt anything. Sure there was a little controversy at the time but it blew over quickly and the game was still highly recommended at the end of it. So basically its a zero risk gamble worst case scenario is it doesn’t have any effect.

      This is why I never bought Shadows of Mordor and never will play it.

  4. satan says:

    Hopefully one day they’ll have to bookend the videos with a disclaimer saying the following/preceding is/was paid advertising, just like in an infomercial.

    • frymaster says:

      That is pretty much what FTC are complaining about – WB gave instructions to the youtubers (“you need to say this is sponsored in the ‘show more’ section of the youtube description”) that was inadequate (because this doesn’t help anyone who sees the video embedded in twitter or another website, or via chromecast or whatever)

      • satan says:

        Yeah by bookend I meant every video would have either a blank image or a couple of seconds of video, making a statement that the following/preceding was paid advertising, as opposed to standard youtuber practice of burying the disclaimer in the description.

  5. Optimaximal says:

    Remember that time when new games journalism was corrupt and the ‘tubers were the future of objective video gametoy opinion delivery?

    • cautet says:

      Maybe one day there will be impartial reviews again. I used to love reading computer mag reviews of Amstrad Games back in the day when the games by the big publishers very rarely rated higher than a 6, and the publishers tried to get on the good side of the magazines rather than the other way around.

      I don’t remember youtubes ever being the future of anything. I thought they were The End or at last the begining of the end.

      Maybe now that the game market is changing to a more widely spread one with smaller publishers and more titles being produced the relationship will change again. The smaller guys will always want exposure for their games rather than it being about clickbait and advertising revenue based off a couple of big publishers.

    • alw says:

      With this and the CSGO thing going on, I kinda wonder where #GamerGate is these days. I mean, these seem to be prime examples of lack of ethics in videogame journalism.

      • Monggerel says:

        Yes but this wasn’t perpetrated by lib(append appropriate racial slur here)s so they don’t care.

        On the other hand, I heard about this when Shadow of Mordor came out. Why is it a thing just now?

        • Emeraude says:

          Justice is slow.

        • Monggerel says:

          Correction: I looked through BroTeamPill’s Twitter, and they did joke about the CS GO Gambling fiasco (apparently had a twitch stream in honor of it too).

          So, maybe not entirely right about that.
          (I know BroTeam has claimed not to bee Gamergate, but his Twitter was a prime resource for the whole shebang, so it works for the purpose here just fine)

      • MikoSquiz says:

        I seem to remember TotalBiscuit et al making a lot of noise about this kind of thing at the time, but being ignored because the concept of “ethics in video game journalism” was obviously a joke and a cover for misogyny.

        • mattevansc3 says:

          It was a big deal at the time because it wasn’t that long after the Machinima/Microsoft controversy. That was two years ago though and there’s been plenty of other stories going on.

      • Premium User Badge

        DelrueOfDetroit says:

        The Glorb Glamours were likely too busy getting a woman fired from Nintendo to notice.

      • noodlecake says:

        #GamerGate doesn’t remotely care about fair journalism. They care about shutting up people who disagree with them and suspecting conspiracies every time indie games that they don’t like the look of but have never actually played get positive reviews.

    • Premium User Badge

      Lars Westergren says:

      Apparently this is still the case, at least according to a lot of angry men on Twitter and Reddit, who are very objective and scientific and not at all involved in some sort of alt-right culture war.

  6. C0llic says:

    I really hope this ruling means the CS:GO lotto debacle is prosecuted. What went on there was far, far more scummy. They absolutely should be allowed to get away with it.

    My fear is they won’t be, because they aren’t big fishes compared to a company like Time Warner. A message needs to be sent. If you commit this type of fraud, there should be repercussions.

    • C0llic says:

      Oops. I mean ‘should *not* be allowed to get away with it’.

  7. Zekiel says:

    Um did I read that right? So WB’s punishment for deliberately obscuring their promotion is… not being allowed to do it again? So this is like a mugger being told “if you do that again, you’ll be in trouble”?

    I mean, that’s kind of good, but wouldn’t you kind of expect some actual punishment for their crime this time round?

    • Emeraude says:

      We live in a world where banks can get fined for less than the profit they made defrauding public institutions.

      Hurting businesses is bad, didn’t you know? They are fragile and needs protection from angry mobs.

      • Zekiel says:

        Oh yes I’d forgotten that. Well done WB in that case, keeping making profit. God bless capitalism.

    • Premium User Badge

      FhnuZoag says:

      The critical point here is that it is not established that WB deliberately intended to deceive. They *did* advise youtubers to disclose the sponsorship, but the FTC now judge the method of disclosure to be inadequate. The purpose of this ruling is to establish clear guidelines on what exactly the FTC considers to be adequate in this and future cases, not to punish WB, or youtubers for making a poor job out of an unclear situation.

      Future cases will presumeably not be treated nearly so leniently.

  8. tyrsius says:

    This seems additionally silly since Shadow of Mordor was an excellent game. I don’t think they would have needed to pay anyway for a positive review.

  9. Anti-Skub says:

    To be fair, that video is pretty neutral. Very little in the way of opinion about the quality of the game is given.

  10. Cederic says:

    Without wishing to excuse Warner Bros or their behaviour, surely the Youtubers are the ones primarily at fault here?

    They’re the ones failing to provide adequate disclosure.

    You can’t bribe someone with integrity.

    • frymaster says:

      The issue is that WB’s advice on adequate disclosure was, err… inadequate.

      As such, I don’t think PDP was deliberately trying to deceive, and I have a lot of sympathy for some of the smaller youtubers… but not really for PDP since it his literally part of his job to know the rules on responsible disclosure.

      But I can see why it’s WB being targeted in this case – they told people “we want to do a sponsored video, you need to make sure you disclose that it’s sponsored by mentioning it in the extended video description”, when in actual fact you must mention in the video itself. Whether or not individual youtubers are targeted, WB has some responsibility for this.

  11. Muzman says:

    Does this mean the great battle of our time comes at last?

    Gaters vs Pewds bros? (whoever wins, we lose)

  12. piesmagicos says:

    I went back and watched the PewDiePie video and first…it clearly states it was sponsored by Warner Bros…and second he never reviewed the game. He said “I had fun playing this, I hope you have fun too”. On top of that, his video was in 2014, a full year before youtube policy on disclosing sponsoring rules were in place…and yet he stated it was sponsored anyway. This click bait culture is so stupid.

  13. wodin says:

    The reviews in my Blog are totally fair and unbiased. When getting products to review it does feel strange to then pull it apart but all the developers\publishers I’ve spoken to and deal with would rather us be honest. One said as long as it’s not out right lies they have no problem at all what I say be it good or bad. The only thing I do do is if I know the game has had poor reviews I’d probably bypass it altogether, I try and make sure anything reviewed is going to be something readers will like. I certainly wouldn’t take money to write a positive review. For abit of money Pewdiepie has brought his page into disrepute and all his hrad work is ruined…silyl and not worth it. Oh and the game was decent anyway..

  14. epressman617 says:

    I would like to object to the stigma of this being pushed on the animaniacs by the cover pic. IF ever there were any characters not likely to go along with corporate BS, it’d be them. Let’s not impugn innocent(ish) toons for something perpetrated by a Thaddeus Plotz type.
    Thank you. That is all.

  15. AteBit says:

    Another reason not to support PewDiePie….