Warner Bros. Paid Video Game Influencers for Positive Reviews, FTC Alleges

Reviewers were instructed to promote the game in a positive way and not to disclose any bugs or glitches

Warner Bros. Paid Video Game Influencers for Positive Reviews, FTC Alleges
Image: Pixabay
July 11, 2016

Warner Bros. Home Entertainment has settled Federal Trade Commission (FTC) charges that it misled consumers during marketing efforts for its video game Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor.

According to the FTC complaint, Warner Bros. failed to adequately disclose that it paid online "influencers," including the wildly popular "PewDiePie," thousands of dollars to post positive gameplay videos on YouTube and social media. The sponsored videos were viewed more than 5.5 million times.

"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, in a written statement. "Companies like Warner Brothers need to be straight with consumers in their online ad campaigns."

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.

The marketing campaign in question was launched in late 2014 to generate buzz within the gaming community for Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor, a fantasy role-playing game loosely based on The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Warner Bros. hired online influencers to develop sponsored gameplay videos and post them on YouTube. The company also told the influencers to promote the videos on Twitter and Facebook, generating millions of views. PewDiePie's sponsored video alone was viewed more than 3.7 million times.

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.

In addition, these influences were not instructed to include sponsorship disclosures clearly and conspicuously in the videos. Instead, the company instructed influencers to place the disclosures in the description box appearing below the video. Since Warner Bros. also required other information to be included in this location, the disclosures appeared "below the fold," concealing the information from the majority of users.