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: