Warner Bros. busted for bankrolling positive YouTube reviews

July 11, 2016 by Kris Ligman

FTC contends Warner Bros funded 'essentially ads' for Shadow of Mordor without adequate disclosure.

Warner Bros. is the latest publisher to come under fire from the Federal Trade Commission over undisclosed paid 'advertorial' content, in which YouTube reviewers were asked to speak positively about an upcoming game in exchange for up to tens of thousands of dollars.

Under Warner Bros.'s "influencer" campaign for 2014's Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor, several YouTubers (including Felix "PewDiePie" Kjellberg) were paid to produce videos about the game which emphasized its good qualities and elided mention of any bugs or major issues. Under the terms of the arrangement, these YouTubers had to mention the videos were sponsored by Warner Bros., but not all of them did so prominently, in a manner viewers were likely to come across the disclosure.

As of today, the FTC has outlined new rules requiring Warner Bros. to more closely monitor YouTuber "influencer" campaigns to ensure full transparency.

"While the videos were sponsored content -- essentially ads for Shadow of Mordor -- the FTC alleges that Warner Bros. failed to require the paid influencers to adequately disclose this fact," the FTC said in conjunction with the announcement. "The FTC also alleges that Warner Bros. did not instruct the influencers to include sponsorship disclosures clearly and conspiculously."

Warner Bros. will not be fined for its infractions, but as a major media publisher, being ordered to shape up like this can still serve as an example to other companies. On the other hand, Warner is not the first publisher to get caught redhanded paying for YouTube reviews: last year, Microsoft was busted over a similar incident when the FTC found it had paid YouTube channel Machinima for positive Xbox One coverage. With YouTube and streaming service Twitch still the foremost platforms for games and buzzwords like "social engagement," you can bet this isn't the last we'll hear of this behavior either.

As an aside, perhaps the weirdest bit of this whole Warner Bros. story is that it was for Shadows of Mordor, for Frodo's sake. That's the game that introduced us to the Nemesis system of dynamic enemy AI. It was already going to enjoy excellent word of mouth, with or without an astroturfed YouTube campaign. Talk about not spending your skill points wisely.