Warner Bros. Hit with FTC Settlement Over Paid Shadow of Mordor Videos

Warner Bros. Hit with FTC Settlement Over Paid Shadow of Mordor Videos

shadow-of-mordor-320

The FTC is hitting Warner Bros. with a settlement because the company failed to offer proper disclosures on paid Shadow of Mordor videos.

The hits just keep on coming for YouTube stars. In the wake of recent issues with CS:GO streamers who were outed for owning sites they were promoting without disclosure, Warner Bros. is about to be hit with an action from the FTC for neglecting to disclose paid relationships with YouTubers.

At issue is the online marketing campaign for Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor - the game that won our Best Action-Adventure award for 2014. Prior to its launch, Warner started up an online marketing campaign that included paying well-known online personalities (including YouTube sensation PewDiePie) for positive coverage of the game. That those videos were made is not the problem - it's how the disclosures were handled.

The FTC statement claims that Warner "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." This is doubly problematic because when videos are shared on most social sites, the "below the fold" content is not included.

Under the proposed settlement, Warner Bros. would be prohibited 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." The company must also take steps to insure that any influencer they hire in the future complies with the same requirements.

Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection, said, "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."

You can read the full FTC release here. This agreement will be open for public comment for 30 days, with that period ending on August 10. If you'd like to submit a comment on the case, you can do so right here.

Permalink

I feel like this is the beginning of the end for gaming channels being the highest subscribed channels. They grew so rapidly the law wasn't able to stay current at all the shenanigans that were going on. Now that is beginning to catch up, a lot of channels are going to be taking a lot of hits, and new channels will struggle.

All that WB dough just too much to say "no" too, eh? Does PDP (hehe, sounds like a narcotic!) really need the money? Isn't he one of the more popular ones? Also, Is there a list of youtubers who are part of this? The link only mentioned PDP. I sincerely hope their fans would want to hear about these little insignificant details.
A quick glance over the legal document, it's interesting that they refer to the youtubers as "influencers." The precise root of this situation.

The question I posed to this (or similar things) when it was bouncing around on Twitter.

When did LPers ever claim to be objective journalists to start with?

Now, there are some who do that, making reviews or covering game news. But you're primarily looking at an entertainment medium where it'd be more akin to seeing someone drink a coke or drive a toyota on a TV program. Which are usually paid product placement, but also not required to put giant emphasis in their opening credits.

Its weird that WB was so shady with shadows of mordor. I mean the game was really good, but they went to some really weird places for the marketing.

I remember seeing a few of those videos and I remember noticing that it seemed odd that the same few comments about the gameplay and features were being used.

I distinctly remember something about the NPC's personalities or something like that.

It was only later when I read an article about it that I finally understood what was going on.

Seth Carter:
The question I posed to this (or similar things) when it was bouncing around on Twitter.

When did LPers ever claim to be objective journalists to start with?

Now, there are some who do that, making reviews or covering game news. But you're primarily looking at an entertainment medium where it'd be more akin to seeing someone drink a coke or drive a toyota on a TV program. Which are usually paid product placement, but also not required to put giant emphasis in their opening credits.

I don't know what the rules are for TV placement, but The FTC has rules for advertisers that they broke. I do like to see sponsored content labeled as such.

Seth Carter:
The question I posed to this (or similar things) when it was bouncing around on Twitter.

When did LPers ever claim to be objective journalists to start with?

Now, there are some who do that, making reviews or covering game news. But you're primarily looking at an entertainment medium where it'd be more akin to seeing someone drink a coke or drive a toyota on a TV program. Which are usually paid product placement, but also not required to put giant emphasis in their opening credits.

The issue isn't that Warner Brothers was paying people to play Shadow of Mordor and talk about it, the issue was that, in their terms, they were paying 'influencers.' I'm not sure WB are at fault here, because soulless marketing is just part of the industry, but PewDiePie should know better. He has millions of subscribers, and he makes millions of dollars, and yet he still happily agrees to play the game and only state positive things about it. That's the crux of the issue - it's dishonest.

Imagine if your favourite YouTube Let's Player put out a Colonial Marines video and talked up how good it was while either craftily editing or diverting attention away from the negative aspects. You might notice and think, oh, Randy Pitchford definitely paid this guy, but there are viewers, particularly younger ones, who'll go out and buy that shitty game on the back of the LPer's influence.

Worgen:
Its weird that WB was so shady with shadows of mordor. I mean the game was really good, but they went to some really weird places for the marketing.

I find that equally baffling. It's a totally legit game. It'd be like paying someone to say positive things about BioShock. I almost feel like Warner Brothers got ripped off.

Thyunda:

Seth Carter:
The question I posed to this (or similar things) when it was bouncing around on Twitter.

When did LPers ever claim to be objective journalists to start with?

Now, there are some who do that, making reviews or covering game news. But you're primarily looking at an entertainment medium where it'd be more akin to seeing someone drink a coke or drive a toyota on a TV program. Which are usually paid product placement, but also not required to put giant emphasis in their opening credits.

The issue isn't that Warner Brothers was paying people to play Shadow of Mordor and talk about it, the issue was that, in their terms, they were paying 'influencers.' I'm not sure WB are at fault here, because soulless marketing is just part of the industry, but PewDiePie should know better. He has millions of subscribers, and he makes millions of dollars, and yet he still happily agrees to play the game and only state positive things about it. That's the crux of the issue - it's dishonest.

Imagine if your favourite YouTube Let's Player put out a Colonial Marines video and talked up how good it was while either craftily editing or diverting attention away from the negative aspects. You might notice and think, oh, Randy Pitchford definitely paid this guy, but there are viewers, particularly younger ones, who'll go out and buy that shitty game on the back of the LPer's influence.

Maybe, but it still seems like they're making up an arbitrary new set of rules in this case. To borrow from a wiki article on PewDiePie

"Due to his popularity, PewDiePie's coverage of indie games has created an Oprah effect, boosting sales for titles he plays."

Yet if you watch Oprah, its a tiny little blurb at the end that usually mentions the products being paid endorsements. ON the other hand, people who are legitimate experts claiming objectivity who appear on Oprah, like Dr Oz, face consequences for trying to shill stuff because they are there as legitimate objective experts. Oprah herself is a TV personality.

Add on that most Youtuber's play a character, effectively a fictional person. Even if based on an exaggeration of their own personality. There's a divide between the character of PewDiePie and Felix Kjellberg the real person, in the example. Its relating a fictional character's enjoyment of something to an objective recommendation.

James Bond drives around an Aston Martin (though I think its been changed in the last movie or two), which Aston Martin paid for that to be the case. I don't suddenly take that to be Daniel Craig or Pierce Brosnan or Sean Connery recommending the car to me objectively.

Now, if the videos are reviewing the game while playing it, or being presented as an unfiltered preview, then its obviously in another area.

I think the real story is...its fucking 2 years later.

Silentpony:
I feel like this is the beginning of the end for gaming channels being the highest subscribed channels. They grew so rapidly the law wasn't able to stay current at all the shenanigans that were going on. Now that is beginning to catch up, a lot of channels are going to be taking a lot of hits, and new channels will struggle.

I don't see why though. Smaller channels don't need contracts, as merely being asked to do it often may be enough.

If anything, things will level out for smaller channels. This might hurt big ones like Pewdiepie...but fuck him. The big ones tend to be the sellout ones who never had a backbone to begin with.

Saelune:
SNIP

No what I meant was that the larger channels got big in part because of undisclosed promotions for popular games. And with new vigilance and laws coming into effect, the smaller channels won't have that same undisclosed cash-flow and will need to get popular off the inherent talents of the hosts without the safety net of backroom deals.

Silentpony:

Saelune:
SNIP

No what I meant was that the larger channels got big in part because of undisclosed promotions for popular games. And with new vigilance and laws coming into effect, the smaller channels won't have that same undisclosed cash-flow and will need to get popular off the inherent talents of the hosts without the safety net of backroom deals.

...good? You made it sound like a bad thing, but if shitty channels wont be as popular or numerous, I'm down for that.

Worgen:
Its weird that WB was so shady with shadows of mordor. I mean the game was really good, but they went to some really weird places for the marketing.

And the porting. And the quality assurance. And the HR department.

Worgen:
Its weird that WB was so shady with shadows of mordor. I mean the game was really good, but they went to some really weird places for the marketing.

It's practically becoming a corporate mindset that they have to deceive the audience, no matter the quality of the product.

I'm simply wondering what's the point. Companies like WB rake in so much money that any kind of fine or penalty and what they god sentenced with could barely be considered a slap on the wrist. Barely even a financial finger wagging. Super huge companies should face fines of the millions at the least. Repeat offences should become exponentially more severe. A company that makes fifty million and gets fined a couple hundred thousand are going to look at the maths and not care.

ffronw:
Under the proposed settlement, Warner Bros. would be prohibited 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." The company must also take steps to insure that any influencer they hire in the future complies with the same requirements.

So the settlement is that they have to do exactly what the law required them to do in the first place. I fail to see how there's any punishment involved here.

Kahani:

ffronw:
Under the proposed settlement, Warner Bros. would be prohibited 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." The company must also take steps to insure that any influencer they hire in the future complies with the same requirements.

So the settlement is that they have to do exactly what the law required them to do in the first place. I fail to see how there's any punishment involved here.

This is more in the vein of "This is your slap on the wrist. If you do this again, you're going to be facing much harsher penalties." It's more of a documentation step at this point than a penalty.

Seth Carter:
When did LPers ever claim to be objective journalists to start with?

Critics aren't journalists, much as this particular cottage industry blurs that line.

Even so, Critics are people who are paid by their employer to look at a product and - as objectively and honestly as possible - tell the reader if said product is worth spending their time and money on. They aren't bound to the same ethical quandaries as someone reporting actual press releases news, but it's still poor form for them to lie about the value of a product, since that's ultimately their one job.

To put this another way; if Warner tried to pull this manipulative BS on Batman v Superman, only offering to show early screenings to people who wouldn't complain that the movie was a train wreck, we'd never have heard the end of it. The mere fact that Shadows of Mordor was "pretty good" are making people ignore how potentially dangerous and scummy this practice is, particularly when guys like PewDiePie and Total Biscuit probably influence more sales than "classic" text reviews by now.

UberGott:

Seth Carter:
When did LPers ever claim to be objective journalists to start with?

Critics aren't journalists, much as this particular cottage industry blurs that line.

Even so, Critics are people who are paid by their employer to look at a product and - as objectively and honestly as possible - tell the reader if said product is worth spending their time and money on. They aren't bound to the same ethical quandaries as someone reporting actual press releases news, but it's still poor form for them to lie about the value of a product, since that's ultimately their one job.

To put this another way; if Warner tried to pull this manipulative BS on Batman v Superman, only offering to show early screenings to people who wouldn't complain that the movie was a train wreck, we'd never have heard the end of it. The mere fact that Shadows of Mordor was "pretty good" are making people ignore how potentially dangerous and scummy this practice is, particularly when guys like PewDiePie and Total Biscuit probably influence more sales than "classic" text reviews by now.

Adding to my research, I've now scanned the first five pages of PewDiePie's videos. And while my brain is trying to melt out my ears from the stupid exposure, there doesn't seem to be any vague implication of him being a critic other then a Bayonette LP segment "Is this game too sexual? Bayonette 2 Playthrough Pt 4". I haven't watched the things, but it doesn't seem like a critical platform.

TotalBiscuit on the other hand does actually review and recommend games. And cover the industry as a games journalist. He is also, IIRC, currently being paid directly by a collective audience on Patreon partially to guarantee objectivity and fair reviews. As is Jim Sterling.

PewDiePie playing a game and seeming to enjoy it seems on par with Kanye West tweeting that he just had some good McDonalds. Its entirely likely he's being paid to do so, and a million people may consider this a logical opinion to live by. But he's not the restaurant critic in the newspaper or my personal nutritionalist trying to push the same thing on me. He's self-employed, so no ones paying him to do anything other then whatever he feels like doing.

A common thing in LPs, for instance, is to edit out excessive deaths/retries, unless they're entertaining somehow. Am I suddenly liable for misrepresenting Wolfenstein : The Old Blood because I cut out 15 final boss tries before I figured out it was a stealth mechanic and made the game seem more seemless and intuitive then it actually is?

Seth Carter:
The question I posed to this (or similar things) when it was bouncing around on Twitter.

When did LPers ever claim to be objective journalists to start with?

Now, there are some who do that, making reviews or covering game news. But you're primarily looking at an entertainment medium where it'd be more akin to seeing someone drink a coke or drive a toyota on a TV program. Which are usually paid product placement, but also not required to put giant emphasis in their opening credits.

The problem is, even gaming "journalism" is hobbyist journalism and has deep ties to the media. You don't have hobbyist/enthusiast journalism without enthusiasm, which leads to certain ethical sites promoting the hell out of broken games like The Division without any sort of critical or journalistic eye.

It's all journalism in the same sense homeopathy is medicine: most people don't give a crap and some people take it way too seriously.

However, I think the idea of disclosure of direct sponsorship is a good thing and should be prominently displayed. I don't even mind that it exists: several of the YouTube channels I follow will do sponsored reviews or ads from time to time. This is not some incidental element of a video, it is the core. It's more akin to an infomercial, which does have FTC requirements.

Worgen:
Its weird that WB was so shady with shadows of mordor. I mean the game was really good, but they went to some really weird places for the marketing.

Not really weird, no. They likely didn't know they had a game that would be well-received and as such did what they could to make sure it was treated positively. Which would be fine if they didn't, you know...break the law.

WB shouldn't be the only one punished. If any youtuber didn't disclosed the deal and hided it from their viewers, it should also receive some sort of punishement.

Saelune:
I think the real story is...its fucking 2 years later.

TB even made a video about it at the time but i guess better later than never.

ffronw:

Kahani:

ffronw:
Under the proposed settlement, Warner Bros. would be prohibited 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." The company must also take steps to insure that any influencer they hire in the future complies with the same requirements.

So the settlement is that they have to do exactly what the law required them to do in the first place. I fail to see how there's any punishment involved here.

This is more in the vein of "This is your slap on the wrist. If you do this again, you're going to be facing much harsher penalties." It's more of a documentation step at this point than a penalty.

And making it public this way was part of the punishment too. Sort of like parading WB (and by proxy, the YouTubers) through Westeros shouting "Shame! Shame!" It's an important first step, and while I wanted to see an actual penalty, I suspect it will deter folks -- both publishers and YouTubers -- from this kind of stuff going forward.

Seth Carter:

PewDiePie playing a game and seeming to enjoy it seems on par with Kanye West tweeting that he just had some good McDonalds. Its entirely likely he's being paid to do so, and a million people may consider this a logical opinion to live by. But he's not the restaurant critic in the newspaper or my personal nutritionalist trying to push the same thing on me. He's self-employed, so no ones paying him to do anything other then whatever he feels like doing.

Sure, he's not really a critic. He's more of entertainer. But he's still being paid to promote a product. He was literally paid to push Shadow of Mordor. The fact that he's self-employed is irrelevant. He makes his living doing this. He should know that putting a two word disclaimer below the Show More button is essentially hiding it, and that being up front with his audience requires more than that token effort.

Seth Carter:
A common thing in LPs, for instance, is to edit out excessive deaths/retries, unless they're entertaining somehow. Am I suddenly liable for misrepresenting Wolfenstein : The Old Blood because I cut out 15 final boss tries before I figured out it was a stealth mechanic and made the game seem more seemless and intuitive then it actually is?

The agreements WB struck with YouTubers was not about how much blood or death was on screen. It dictated that streamers talk about the game in a positive way, prohibit any negative statements or sentiments, avoid showing any bugs or glitches, and encourage people to visit the game website and/or buy the game. Those are things that any YouTube viewer deserves to know about the content they are watching.

Seth Carter:
PewDiePie playing a game and seeming to enjoy it seems on par with Kanye West tweeting that he just had some good McDonalds.

Y'know, while I stand by what I wrote about why critics being honest is important... I actually agree with you on this.

I didn't mean to say that PewDiePie was a serious critic, only that he - along with more traditionally grounded, critical voices like TB - have become the sort of marketing phenomenon that can move product in a way that traditional critics and celebrity endorsements are not. PewDiePie would likely never consider himself a critic, either, so I can't really fault him for not holding himself to the standards of one.

For what it's worth, I also think he did his part in disclosing that it was a paid promo before the FTC really pushed that angle for YouTube, and it's kind of a pity he's getting shat on for it now, as PDP was one of the better acts out there in terms of explaining that they were getting paid to shill a product. I get it, the Pewds has gotta get Paids, so long as he makes it clear that's what he's doing I don't really care.

It's also worth noting that one of the most in-depth and meaningful critical analysis' ever put together in the YouTube age could well be Mr. Plinkett's brutal evisceration of the Star Wars prequels. Are the Red Letter Media crew "critics"? Absolutely! But is Mr. Plinkett's feature-length review(!) purely a comedy show, or is it every bit as serious a piece of criticism as any college-level essay?

By the same measure, the average LP of a new or unreleased game has the potential to be as much a work of criticism as it does entertainment. I'unno, it's a very gray and murky area we're trudging through here. Which is exactly why disclosure is important in the first place.

Seth Carter:

Add on that most Youtuber's play a character, effectively a fictional person. Even if based on an exaggeration of their own personality. There's a divide between the character of PewDiePie and Felix Kjellberg the real person, in the example. Its relating a fictional character's enjoyment of something to an objective recommendation.

James Bond drives around an Aston Martin (though I think its been changed in the last movie or two), which Aston Martin paid for that to be the case. I don't suddenly take that to be Daniel Craig or Pierce Brosnan or Sean Connery recommending the car to me objectively.

Now, if the videos are reviewing the game while playing it, or being presented as an unfiltered preview, then its obviously in another area.

Your first part is the important issue. The character of PewDiePie is the 'influencer,' as the corporations rather cynically put it, but it's a flimsy defence for Kjellberg. As PewDiePie is not a clear parody of anyone in particular, and merely an exaggeration of Kjellberg's own personality, you cannot say "well just because PewDiePie likes something doesn't mean Kjellberg is actively trying to sell it."

For another example - Laura Kate on the Podquisition talked about how she was offered money to advertise a gambling system that was close to being marketed in Europe. This particular gambling system was outlawed in Japan (if I recall correctly and I probably don't) and she wanted to state this in the article she was being paid to write. The company rejected her proposal, and told her the article must not mention that negative aspect - so she dropped the deal and refused to write the article at all. In the same episode, Gavin Dunne mentioned that he regularly refuses sponsorship from companies in exchange for extra songs, because he doesn't feel like the songs would be adequate for his audience and would only be a paid advertisement.

Your James Bond comparison would only make sense if Daniel Craig, Pierce Brosnan and Sean Connery were recommending the car to you - or rather, because the target audience is different, it would be more like Daniel Craig appearing during...I dunno, what do teens watch these days? Family Guy? Okay, it'd be like during an advert break if Daniel Craig suddenly appeared onscreen and declared "Hey teens, did you know you can afford an Aston Martin of your very own?! Look how great this car is! On our finance plan...et cetera, et cetera." PewDiePie appeals to a younger, impressionable audience, and as a Let's Play, he is presenting the footage as an unfiltered preview. You could also make the argument that he's deliberately playing up how much fun his character is apparently having - because I can guarantee he won't have said "well this is boring" during a Warner Brothers game.

ffronw:
This is more in the vein of "This is your slap on the wrist. If you do this again, you're going to be facing much harsher penalties." It's more of a documentation step at this point than a penalty.

But that's the point - there doesn't appear to be any slap, and there doesn't appear to be any reason not to apply an actual penalty. If you murder someone, the police don't just document that you did it and say that they'll totally take it seriously if you do it again. WB broke the law. Repeatedly. The crime is already well enough documented for the FTC to investigate and take action, it's just that for some reason that action has been to do nothing other than say "this crime has been documented". Asking them not to do it again isn't a slap on the wrist, it's letting them off scot free.

 

Reply to Thread

Log in or Register to Comment
Have an account? Login below:
With Facebook:Login With Facebook
or
Username:  
Password:  
  
Not registered? To sign up for an account with The Escapist:
Register With Facebook
Register With Facebook
or
Register for a free account here