Almost two years after TotalBiscuit originally brought up the issue on Twitter, Warner Bros. has finally received its punishment from the FTC for paying YouTubers money for positive coverage of its Lord of the Rings game Shadow of Mordor.
In a statement from the FTC, the commission said:
Warner Bros. Home Entertainment, Inc. has settled Federal Trade Commission charges that it deceived consumers during a marketing campaign for the video game Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor, by failing to adequately disclose that it paid online “influencers,”
Among those caught in the scandal is PewDiePie, who is currently the most subscribed to YouTuber with about forty-four million subscribers:
[included is] the wildly popular “PewDiePie,” [who was paid] thousands of dollars to post positive gameplay videos on YouTube and social media. Over the course of the campaign, the sponsored videos were viewed more than 5.5 million times. 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.
When explaining the investigation, the group said:
The FTC’s complaint stems from a late-2014 Warner Bros. online marketing campaign designed to generate buzz within the gaming community for the new release of Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor, a fantasy role-playing game loosely based on The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy. [...] Warner Bros. paid each influencer from hundreds to tens of thousands of dollars, gave them a free advance-release version of the game, and told them how to promote it, according to the complaint. The FTC contends that Warner Bros. required the influencers to promote the game in a positive way and not to disclose any bugs or glitches they found. While the videos were sponsored content – essentially ads for Shadow of Mordor – the FTC alleges that Warner Bros. failed to require the paid influencers to adequately disclose this fact. The FTC also alleges that Warner Bros. did not instruct the influencers to include sponsorship disclosures clearly and conspicuously in the video itself where consumers were likely to see or hear them. Instead, according to the complaint, Warner Bros. instructed influencers to place the disclosures in the description box appearing below the video. Because Warner Bros. also required other information to be placed in that box, the vast majority of sponsorship disclosures appeared “below the fold,” visible only if consumers clicked on the “Show More” button in the description box. In addition, when influencers posted YouTube videos on Facebook or Twitter, the posting did not include the “Show More” button, making it even less likely that consumers would see the sponsorship disclosures. The complaint also alleges that in some cases, the influencers disclosed only that they had received early access to Shadow of Mordor, but failed to disclose that Warner Bros. also had paid them to promote the game.
While Pewdiepie was just one of many YouTubers paid by Warner Bros., his was most likely the most influential, because of his incredibly large fan base and social media clout.