A Brighton-based YouTube star was paid thousands of dollars to promote a video game without properly disclosing the deal to his 40 million followers, the American consumer watchdog said.
Felix Kjellberg, who is better known online as PewDiePie, was one of several YouTube “influencers” paid up to tens of thousands of dollars to make promotional videos for Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor and promote the game to their fans, the Federal Trade Commission said.
The FTC accused Warner Bros, the company behind the game, of “deceptive practice” in failing to ensure that consumers knew the videos were part of an advertising campaign. Thirty videos promoting Shadow of Mordor were uploaded to YouTube and were viewed more than 5.5 million times, including 3.7 million views of Kjellberg’s video.
Kjellberg, 26, who was born in Sweden, is perhaps YouTube’s best-known video blogger, playing games while giving offbeat commentary. His PewDiePie channel on YouTube has more than 46 million subscribers and he has more than 8 million Twitter followers. Forbes estimates that he earned $12 million (£9 million) last year.
The FTC’s allegations relate only to Warner Bros and not to Kjellberg, although he was named in FTC documents. Kjellberg did not respond to requests for comment.
Warner Bros hired Plaid Social Labs, an advertising agency, to coordinate a YouTube “influencer campaign” to promote Shadow of Mordor on its release in September 2014. Several vloggers were given free access to a pre-release version of the game and cash payments if they met certain requirements, the FTC said.
The vloggers were told to include a “strong call to action” to encourage viewers to visit the game’s official website; to promote “positive sentiment” about the game; and to make one Facebook post or one tweet in support of their video. Footage was subject to pre-approval from Warner Bros or Plaid Social Labs.
The vloggers were instructed to place a sponsorship disclosure in a text box below their videos on YouTube but these disclosures were often hidden from view, the FTC said. The vloggers were not told to include disclosures within their videos.
In a seven-minute video posted on September 4, 2014, Kjellberg provides a running commentary on Shadow of Mordor as he plays the game.
“I had a lot of fun playing this game”, he says at the end. He does not say in the video that he was paid by Warner Bros to promote it, that it had been pre-approved by Warner Bros or that it formed part of an advertising campaign. Text below the video, which could only be accessed by clicking a “show more” tab, said the video was sponsored by Warner Bros.
The FTC said: “These gameplay videos of Shadow of Mordor do not reflect the independent opinions or experiences of impartial video game enthusiasts. The YouTube influencers were paid by respondent to create the videos as part of respondent’s advertising campaign to promote sales of the game.”
The FTC has proposed an order banning Warner Bros from failing to make disclosures about vlogger campaigns in the future. Jessica Rich, director of consumer protection at the FTC, said: “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.”