Warner Brothers fined for paying YouTube celebs to promote game

The modern media dynamic has changed. The rigid and pre-selected programming of TV, radio and print is today challenged by an ‘anything at any time’ culture led by internet services. Put simply: the web has changed how we get our news, views, entertainment and more. It’s pretty important to note, therefore, that Warner Brothers was just found guilty of manipulating new media by paying prominent YouTube hosts to promote a video game.

The FTC this week disclosed that the broadcast giant gave “tens of thousands of dollars” to a number of YouTube celebrities, including the hugely popular PewDiePie (who has a colossal 46 million subscribers and reportedly makes $7 million a year), to promote ‘Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor’ without making relevant disclosures.

Rather than visibility labeling videos as promoted content (advertising), the FTC said that Warner Bros asked the celebs to put disclaimer information in the description box for videos, meaning that it wasn’t immediately obvious that this was a paid-for shill.

“Because Warner Bros. 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 FTC explained.

In other cases, however, the FTC said that some influencers didn’t even bother to say that they had been paid for the promotion.

The incident happened in late 2014, but it is notable because companies aren’t allowed to buy promotion like that without the media — in this case, YouTube hosts and bloggers — disclosing that they were paid to big up the product in question. Ethics are important in media. They establish credibility for both media companies and brands because, particularly in the case of YouTube streamers, they often have huge influence among the young generation, many of whom would go out and buy products or games that they see in PewDiePie or other top YouTubers’ videos.

“Consumers have the right to know if reviewers are providing their own opinions or paid sales pitches. Companies like Warner Brothers need to be straight with consumers in their online ad campaigns,” Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, said of the case.

Warner Brothers didn’t conduct the outreach itself — it used marketing firm Plaid Social Labs to do that — and it is fair to say that many bloggers do need to make money independently, sponsorship is one option, but this case shows that the process should be done right. No doubt there are many examples, particularly overseas, of online personalities abusing the system, there is clearly much to be done in this area as new media continues to grow in influence.