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Warner Settles With FTC Regarding Video Game Marketing

12 Jul, 2016 By: Erik Gruenwedel

"Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor"

Warner Bros. Home Entertainment has settled charges levied by the Federal Trade Commission regarding deceptive marketing practices for Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor, a 2014 video game loosely based on The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Specifically, the government said Warner failed to disclose it paid several YouTube stars, including Felix Arvid Ulf Kjellberg (a.k.a. PewDiePie), a Swedish online comedian and video producer, thousands of dollars to post positive gameplay videos on the Google-owned site and social media. Over the course of the campaign, the sponsored videos were viewed more than 5.5 million times.

The FTC said Warner told the influencers to promote the videos on Twitter and Facebook, generating millions of views. Indeed, PewDiePie’s sponsored video alone was viewed more than 3.7 million times.

Warner 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 required the influencers to promote the game in a positive way and not to disclose any bugs or glitches they found.

While the videos were sponsored content — essentially ads for Shadow of Mordor — the FTC alleges that Warner failed to require the paid influencers to adequately disclose this fact. The FTC also alleges the studio did not instruct the influencers to include sponsorship disclosures clearly and conspicuously in the video itself where consumers were likely to see or hear them.

Instead, according to the complaint, Warner instructed influencers to place the disclosures in the description box appearing below the video. Because Warner 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. In addition, when influencers posted YouTube videos on Facebook or Twitter, the posting did not include the “show more” button, making it even less likely that consumers would see the sponsorship disclosures.

The complaint also alleges that in some cases, the influencers disclosed only that they had received early access to Shadow of Mordor, but failed to disclose that Warner had also paid them to promote the game.

Under a proposed order announced July 11, Warner is barred from failing to make such disclosures in the future and cannot misrepresent that sponsored content, including gameplay videos, are the objective, independent opinions of video game enthusiasts or influencers.

“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 statement. “Companies like Warner Bros. need to be straight with consumers in their online ad campaigns.”

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