In the late 50/early 60s there was a scandal involving record companies paying radio stations and DJs to play their music prominently and repeatedly. The practice was called “payola”, and it was quickly criminalized, but that doesn’t mean record companies stopped trying. Recently, we’ve had allegations that payola was alive and well in the movie business, conspiracy theories about Disney paying critics to give their movies good reviews, which is ridiculous of course because Alice Through the Looking Glass. Still, this news will likely not put the minds of those theorists to rest because a video game company has been caught red-handed paying off critics to like their games.
Warner Bros. Home Entertainment, Inc. has settled with Federal Trade Commission over charges that consumers were deceived by positive reviews of the game Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor because, and let’s quote the press release – they 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.” Those videos were viewed some 5.5 million times, with PewDiePie’s alone being seen 3.7 million.
“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. “Companies like Warner Brothers need to be straight with consumers in their online ad campaigns.”
According to the allegation, 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 “in a positive way and not to disclose any bugs or glitches they found.” According to the rules, this exchange would make the videos sponsored contented, and that fact was never disclosed. Further, WB is alleged to have instructed influencers to place the disclosures in the description box appearing below the video. Viewers would only learn of the true source of the content when and if they decided to click on the “Show More” button in the description box, which doesn’t show up on the platforms were these videos were often seen or shared, Facebook and Twitter.
As part of the settlement, Warner Bros is prohibited from misrepresenting paid content as “independent opinions”, it has to “clearly and conspicuously disclose any material connection” between themselves and people being paid to endorse their products, and in the future they must make sure that they educate “influencers” on sponsorship disclosures, monitor videos for compliance, and take steps to withhold payment in the case of non-compliance, or sever ties with those not following the rules.
If that sounds like everyone’s getting off light, you can voice your disagreement with the FTC by submitting your comments to them by August 10.