The gaming world has been good to Conan O’Brien in the past year and a half. The late-night talk show host’s glib (and often hilarious) videogame reviews, “Clueless Gamer,” have become a viral sensation, racking up millions of views online.
And he’s been good to the gaming world, in return. The intentionally uninformed reviews expose a variety of games, from independents to major releases, to big online and television audiences that might not otherwise take an interest. The popularity of “Clueless Gamer” has even taken Conan to the industry trade show E3 and Blizzard Entertainment’s annual geektastic BlizzCon convention.
Unknown to viewers, however, is that some of the games that O’Brien features are actually paid endorsement deals with the game companies, a show spokesman confirmed. And although paying for exposure does not guarantee the game will be featured, in at least three examples, Re/code has discovered that companies that did not pay received negative or lukewarm reviews or comments.
One source familiar with the show’s practices said about a quarter of the games that were featured on the skit were paid endorsement deals. None of these deals are disclosed to the public.
“These Clueless Gamer segments are not serious reviews nor endorsements — they are strictly comedic sketches,” the show spokesman said in an emailed statement. As such, he added, “We do not believe sponsorship identification is needed.”
“These are not reviews, they are comedy bits,” the spokesman explained. “Conan makes it very clear that he is not a qualified video game reviewer at the top of each segment.”
Federal Communications Commission rules restrict such pay-to-play practices by radio and television stations, requiring broadcasters to disclose they have received payments to air programs or include products in shows. Those disclosures generally run with the closing credits at the end of a show. The rules around cable programming are murkier.
The FCC’s so-called “sponsorship identification” rules also apply to cable operators, like Comcast Corp., but not to companies that provide cable channels and programming. The rules are pretty technical, however, and apply to cable operators who create shows. Since TBS is owned by Time Warner Inc. and not Time Warner Cable, which was spun off in 2009, it’s not clear how the FCC could take action, even if it got a complaint.
Credits disclosing the pay-for-play program could not be found on Conan’s website or the “Clueless Gamer” videos posted on YouTube, and the Conan TV show that airs on Time Warner-owned cable network TBS does not appear to have a “promotional considerations provided by” announcement over the end credits — or, for that matter, traditional end credits at all, based on a review of some recent full episodes.
In a Halloween special aired in October, O’Brien reviewed three survival-horror games: Parsec Productions’ Slender: The Eight Pages, Frictional Games’ Amnesia: The Dark Descent and Red Barrels’ Outlast. After dissing the first two titles — “forgettable,” he quipped of Amnesia — O’Brien spent most of the segment playing Outlast, praising it as “fantastic” and saying “love this game” by the end.
Parsec’s founder Mark Hadley and Frictional’s creative director Thomas Grip say no money changed hands between their studios and the show. But a spokeswoman for Red Barrels, through its PR agency TriplePoint, said the studio paid $35,000 for Outlast’s inclusion.
“When the producers showed interest in the potential entertainment value for their viewers that we presented, they came back to us saying that they would like to have Conan try the game for himself,” TriplePoint senior account executive Stephanie Palermo said in an email. “But they, of course, like most TV media aren’t going to give you those viewers for free.”
Palermo was told by show staff that the $35,000 fee was significantly lower than O’Brien’s standard rate.
“Insofar as information regarding ad sales and product integration rates, that is privileged network information to which we are not privy,” the show spokesman said in an emailed statement.
It is not immediately clear which game companies are charged this “integration” fee or if payment guarantees anything. As with Slender and Amnesia, Mojang business developer Daniel Kaplan said Minecraft’s “Clueless Gamer” review did not have a fee attached.
“We def did not pay to be on Conan,” Kaplan wrote in an email. “Buying reviews is not our thing.”
O’Brien’s review of that game was mostly negative, with multiple befuddled jabs at Minecraft’s low-res aesthetic: “They put no effort into the graphics,” he said. “This looks like a world if you have glaucoma. … My six-year-old could draw a better monster than that. Who designed this game?”
“All of the games selected are based on whether or not it would make an entertaining piece for our audience,” the Conan spokesman added. “Not all games will fit that criteria. … As with many television shows, some aspects of the program do have an [advertising] integration aspect.”
Palermo said the pay-for-play program is a routine aspect of game-marketing strategies, and said she thought all the game reviews on the show were paid placements.
“He [Conan] doesn’t see the game until after the producers have vetted it,” Palermo said. “You may pay for it, and he may hate it.”
She added that O’Brien was not asked to review Outlast favorably as a condition of the payment.
“The clip that aired was the first time he was exposed to it, with no background on the game before seeing it.”
Outside of cable TV, disclosure rules have tightened in recent years. While Conan might not run afoul of the FCC’s fairly narrow rules on cable programs, other regulators could potentially review the show’s practices.
The Federal Trade Commission has broad authority over “unfair or deceptive acts or practices” in advertising and marketing in most industries and has been more aggressive in its policing, at least online. Agency staff members have been focusing more attention in recent years to ensure celebrities, bloggers and tweeters understand they need to disclose any payments or free products they’ve received for online endorsements or reviews of products or services.
“In general terms, however, any ‘material connection’ between an endorser and an advertisement should be disclosed,” FTC spokeswoman Betsy Lordan said. “This includes payment in cash or kind, and as well as a family connection or an employee-employer relationship.”
Although Lordan declined to comment on the specifics of “Clueless Gamer,” she did point to the commission’s endorsement guidelines. Those guidelines note that while the supposed endorsement of a comedian in a TV advertisement might be understood to be a joke, a celebrity plugging a product in the normal course of a talk show interview without disclosing a paid relationship with that company would be “deceptive.”
Beyond regulatory agencies, there’s also the court of public opinion to consider. Columbia Journalism School professor Emily Bell said when some reviews are paid and others are not, there’s no wiggle room if the audience doesn’t know the full story.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s a joke,” Bell said of O’Brien’s skit. “It’s still a sales method. … I can’t really see any way in which it could possibly be anything other than unethical.”
Update: Hat tip to reader Diana Santiago for flagging this video from last year’s Cannes Lions advertising festival. O’Brien acknowledges that Square Enix’s Tomb Raider, which he reviewed positively, was an “integration,” a bit of ad-jargon that interviewer Anderson Cooper seems to understand but does not interrogate.
Disclosure: One of Re/code’s minority investors, NBCUniversal, owns NBC, where O’Brien hosted two late-night talk shows between 1993 and 2010.
Amy Schatz contributed to this report.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.