Warner Bros. Home Entertainment has been charged with misleading consumers by failing to disclose adequately that it paid YouTube “influencers” to post glowing video reviews of its Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor game.
The U.S. Federal Trade Commission said Monday that the reviews were “essentially ads” for Shadow of Mordor but Warner Bros. did not instruct the influencers to include sponsorship disclosures clearly and conspicuously in the video where consumers were likely to see or hear them.
As part of a proposed settlement, the studio is barred from failing to make such disclosures in the future and cannot misrepresent that sponsored content is the objective, independent opinions of video game enthusiasts or influencers. No financial penalties were included in the agreement.
“Consumers have the right to know if reviewers are providing their own opinions or paid sales pitches,” Jessica Rich, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, said in a news release. “Companies like Warner Brothers need to be straight with consumers in their online ad campaigns.”
According to the FTC’s complaint, Warner Bros. launched a campaign in late 2014 to generate buzz within the gaming community for the release of Shadow of Mordor, a fantasy role-playing game loosely based on The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
The influencers were given cash payments often ranging from hundreds of dollars to tens of thousands of dollars, the commission said, provided they, among other things, promoted “positive sentiment” about the game. The video posted by PewDiePie, the world’s top-earning YouTube video creator, was viewed more than 3.7 million times.
The disclosures were allegedly inadequate because influencers were instructed to put them 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,” the FTC said.