Warner Bros. paid PewDiePie and other digital stars upwards of tens of thousands of dollars each to promote a 2014 game based on the world of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” without properly disclosing the arrangements, according to the Federal Trade Commission.
Under a settlement WB reached with the FTC, announced Monday, Warner Bros. has agreed to make such disclosures in the future.
The FTC charges stem from a promotional campaign for Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment’s video game “Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor,” first released in September 2014, for which it paid influencers to post positive gameplay videos on YouTube and social media. The sponsored videos were viewed more than 5.5 million times, with PewDiePie’s sponsored video alone viewed more than 3.7 million times.
“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 Brothers need to be straight with consumers in their online ad campaigns.”
In a statement, the studio said, “Warner Bros. Home Entertainment always strives to be transparent with our customers and fans when working with social influencers, and we are committed to complying with the related FTC guidelines.”
PewDiePie, who is the No. 1 most-subscribed individual creator on YouTube with more than 46 million followers, is affiliated with Disney’s Maker Studios. Reps for Maker did not respond to a request for comment. Other digital influencers enlisted by WB for the “Shadow of Mordor” promos, according to the FTC, included I Am Wildcat, Silentc0re and Siv HD.
It’s not the first time marketers have run afoul of the FTC’s rules requiring disclosure about paid promotions by digital influencers. Last fall, Machinima reached a settlement with the agency after an FTC investigation into promotional videos for Microsoft’s Xbox One system and games.
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.
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.”