Sometimes YouTube video game 'reviews' are actually sneaky sponsored videos

YouTuber videos touting Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor weren't actually independent reviews. But that wasn't clear.

Some YouTubers who "reviewed" a Lord of the Rings video game were given a free copy of the game, and were paid by Warner Bros. to give positive thoughts – but it wasn't made clear the videos were essentially sponsored content, not legitimate reviews.

That's according to the Federal Trade Commission, which said Warner Bros. "misled" consumers by making it seem as though the videos "reflected the independent or objective views" of the YouTube influencers.

The marketing campaign for the game – Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor – ran in late 2014, and ultimately comprised about 30 videos. They recorded a total of about 5.5 million views. The highest-profile name was PewDiePie, whose Shadow of Mordor video rang up 3.7 million views, the FTC said.

Here's his video, posted in September of 2014:

Warner Bros. contracted the campaign out to a different company. Here are some of the requirements for the YouTubers who participated:

  • The video had to feature game play, and tell viewers to click a link to go back to the video game's website.
  • The video had to "promote positive sentiment" about Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor.
  • The video could not include anything negative about the game, and was not allowed to mention any bugs or glitches.

The sponsored content notice that's required was in the YouTube video's description – but below other information, so it wasn't visible unless someone clicked the "show more" option. And, when the videos were posted straight to Facebook or Twitter, that information doesn't come up.

This case actually came up earlier this summer – the FTC and Warner Bros. settled back in July, but it had to go through a public comment period before being finalized. That happened Monday. Warner Bros. has to be better about disclosing sponsored campaigns in the future, the settlement says.

“Consumers have the right to know if reviewers are providing their own opinions or paid sales pitches,” said Jessica Richwith the FTC in July.

PewDiePie, when it came out, responded with his own video, saying at the time the FTC didn't have guidelines for disclosure – those came in 2015, he argues, which Forbes backs up in its reporting. PewDiePie says despite that, he did disclose his relationship with Warner Bros. in the video's about section, and that his name was the only one mentioned because he's a popular YouTuber.

It's also worth noting PewDiePie wasn't punished or anything by the FTC.

So what's the lesson?

Be careful about who you trust on YouTube.

Anybody who is reviewing a product they got for free, or as part of an endorsement/marketing deal, has to say that, the FTC explains.

There's no specific language that's needed.

"The point is to give readers the essential information. A simple disclosure like 'Company X gave me this product to try ...' will usually be effective," the agency says.

If it's part of a YouTube video, putting it in the description isn't enough – it should be clear, and included in the video itself somehow.

And then there's this: A recent study from Stanford University, that found 8 in 10 middle-schoolers couldn't tell whether something was sponsored content or a real news piece, the Wall Street Journal reported.

"Many students judged the credibility of newsy tweets based on how much detail they contained or whether a large photo was attached, rather than on the source," the Journal wrote.

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