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PewDiePie and other YouTubers took money from Warner Bros. for positive game reviews

The Federal Trade Commission has reached a settlement with Warner Bros. over claims that the publisher failed to disclose that it had paid prominent YouTubers for positive coverage of one of its video games. The FTC charge stated that Warner Bros. deceived customers by paying thousands of dollars to social media “influencers,” including YouTube megastar PewDiePie, to cover Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor without announcing that money had changed hands.

Under the terms of the agreement, Warner Bros. is banned from failing to disclose similar deals in the future, and cannot pretend that sponsored videos and articles are actually the work of independent producers. “Consumers have the right to know if reviewers are providing their own opinions or paid sales pitches,” director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection Jessica Rich said in a statement. “Companies like Warner Brothers need to be straight with consumers in their online ad campaigns.”

The infuencers could not express negative opinions about the game

Warner Bros.’ deal with the influencers involved stated that they had to make at least one tweet or Facebook post about the game, as well as produce videos with a string of caveats to avoid showing it in a negative light. Those videos could not express negative opinions about the game or Warner Bros. itself, could not show any glitches or bugs, and must include “a strong verbal call-to-action to click the link in the description box for the viewer to go to the [game’s] website to learn more about the [game], to learn how they can register, and to learn how to play the game,” according to Ars Technica.

The videos earned more than 5.5 million views for Warner Bros., with PewDiePie’s monster subscriber numbers accounting for 3.7 million views on his own. Influencers were advised to disclose the video’s sponsored status under YouTube’s “Show More” section, but some did not, and the FTC says this would not have been enough to skirt the rules anyway, as the disclaimer would not have been visible on videos watched through Twitter, Facebook, or other social media sources.

YouTube has increasingly been seen as a haven for independent video game purchasing advice over recent years, as Let’s Plays have taken off as a watch-along format, and movements like GamerGate have cast aspersions against the mainstream media and specialist video games press. But while YouTube allows for a direct connection between these new game-playing celebrities and their fans, the legally murky format and young age of some of the biggest stars mean that people are open to exploitation by companies and YouTubers alike who hide their affiliations.

Other YouTubers have taken money to produce content and presented it as independent opinion

In 2014, Gamasutra found that of more than 40 YouTubers questioned with more than 5,000 subscribers, a quarter had taken money to produce sponsored content. Earlier this month, two big names in the Counter-Strike YouTube community were criticized after it was revealed they actually owned a video game item betting site that they had advertized in several videos. Trevor ‘TmarTn’ Martin and Tom ‘ProSyndicate’ Cassell produced videos of themselves using — and repeatedly winning on — CSGOLotto, without divulging that they owned the site, and could conceivably tweak the odds at will. This was a particular problem because the items being betted on — skins for Counter-Strike’s weapons — can be sold for real money. Currently there are two lawsuits pending against both CSGOLotto and Valve, the creators of Counter-Strike, arguing that both are complicit in operating and maintaining ersatz online casinos.

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