shadowOfMordorOur pop heroes are supposed to be looking out for us. We trust what they say because they’re unbiased. They may have wacky opinions sometimes, but their opinions are their own. Except when they’re not. Warner Bros. has apparently involved itself in a payola scheme(“pay for play”) regarding its game Shadows of Mordor.

The Federal Trade Commission just concluded their investigation of Warner Bros. Games and handed out a heavy fine to Warner Bros. for failing to disclose that video game reviews from several notable YouTube personalities were in fact, promoted content (advertising).  The most famous name on the list was PewDiePie, the face of the “Let’s Play” streaming movement whose channel counts over 46 million subscribers.  What apparently happened was that reviews of the game Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor, a PS4 and XBox One game that Warner Bros. released in 2014, had a disclaimer identifying the video as advertising rather than opinion that was placed in the video’s description box rather than making the disclosure in the actual video. The difference is that not everybody actually sees the video description on all possible playback devices. Even worse, a number of “reviewers” didn’t have the disclaimer present in either location.

While Warner Bros. didn’t make the videos, they did have a responsibility to ride herd on the situation and make sure that all the people they’d paid to “review” their game made it clear that they were being paid to do it. That’s where they fell down on the job. Ironically enough, this game likely didn’t need paid reviews, as it received several awards, including Game of the Year at the 17th Game Developers Choice Awards.

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

While not divulging specific numbers, the complaint alleges that WB paid hundreds to tens of thousands of dollars to paid influencers on the condition that they gave favorable scores and didn’t disclose any bugs or glitches, and didn’t announce that money had changed hands.

Under the terms of the agreement, Warner Bros. is banned from failing to disclose similar deals in the future, and cannot pretend that sponsored videos and articles are actually the work of independent producers. ”

Warner Bros.’ deal with the influencers involved said that they had to make at least one tweet or Facebook post about the game, as well as produce videos about it. These videos and other social media statements couldn’t say anything bad about the game.

The videos earned more than 5.5 million views for Warner Bros., with PewDiePie’s monster subscriber numbers accounting for 3.7 million views on his own. Influencers were advised to disclose the video’s sponsored status under YouTube’s “Show More” section, but some did not, and the FTC says this would not have been enough to skirt the rules anyway, as the disclaimer would not have been visible on videos watched through Twitter, Facebook, or other social media sources.

YouTube has increasingly been seen as a haven for independent video game purchasing advice over recent years, as Let’s Plays have taken off as a watch-along format, and movements like GamerGate have cast aspersions against the mainstream media and specialist video games press. But while YouTube allows for a direct connection between these new game-playing celebrities and their fans, the legally murky format and young age of some of the biggest stars mean that people are open to exploitation by companies and YouTubers alike who hide their affiliations.

It’s no secret that PewdiePie and other YouTubers make a lot of their money from paid endorsements like this, while not always disclosing that they’d been paid. In 2014, Gamasutra found that of more than 40 YouTubers questioned with more than 5,000 subscribers, a quarter had taken money to produce sponsored content. Earlier this month, two big names in the Counter-Strike YouTube community were criticized after it was revealed they actually owned a video game item betting site that they had advertised in several videos. Trevor ‘TmarTn’ Martin and Tom ‘ProSyndicate’ Cassell produced videos of themselves using — and repeatedly winning on — CSGOLotto, without divulging that they owned the site, and could conceivably tweak the odds at will. This was a particular problem because the items being betted on — skins for Counter-Strike’s weapons — can be sold for real money.  There are two lawsuits pending against both CSGOLotto and Valve, the creators of Counter-Strike, arguing that both are complicit in operating and maintaining ersatz online casinos.

It’s all about trust, and truth in advertising. It looks like Warner Bros. has crossed that line, and they’re not the only ones doing it.


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