As the profession of journalism slowly dies, what is sprouting up in its wake are “content creators”—people who replicate the facade of journalism while skipping most of the hard stuff. One manifestation of this phenomenon is the growing swath of people who review art and entertainment on YouTube, healdined by Pewdiepie, the Swede who has become the single most subscribed user on Youtube, making of tens of millions of dollars in the process.
It would be no surprise then that the companies that produce and market video games would look to leverage Pewdiepie’s audience, as well as that of the thousands of imitators that followed in his wake. Nor should it be a surprise that Pewdiepie and the like are willing to engage in practices that blur the lines between “sponsored content” and good ol’ payola.
Variety reported yesterday that Warner Bros. agreed to a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission for paying YouTubers to positively review the game Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor without requiring that the reviewer disclose the payments. Via Variety:
According to the FTC, Warner Bros. enlisted ad agency Plaid Social Labs to hire online influencers to develop sponsored gameplay videos for “Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor,” post them on YouTube and promote them on Twitter and Facebook. WB paid from “hundreds to tens of thousands of dollars” to each influencer and gave them a free, pre-release version of the game, and told them to not disclose any bugs they discovered, according to the complaint. In addition, Warner Bros. failed to instruct the influencers to include sponsorship disclosures “clearly and conspicuously” in the videos themselves, but instead told them to put disclosures in the description field of the videos, the FTC said.
The likelihood of a viewer spotting “This video was sponsored by Warner Brother” amidst the deluge of unrelated promotional links is minimal. Warner Bros., Pewdiepie, et al would probably argue that this is essentially poorly labeled sponsored content, but the FTC believed that there was something intentionally misleading going on:
With the campaign, according to the FTC, Warner Bros. misled consumers “by suggesting that the gameplay videos of ‘Shadow of Mordor’ reflected the independent or objective views of the influencers.”
Of course, the exact nefariousness of this relationship is only one question. The other is more important: Do YouTube viewers even care if games reviewers are being paid by massive companies to say that video games are good? My guess would be that the subscriber counts of the accounts involved in this scheme (Pewdiepie but also I Am Wildcat, Silentc0re and Siv HD) are not going to decrease. Neither, one figures, will their reputations.