The Federal Trade Commission smacked Warner Bros. Home Entertainment for a marketing campaign that paid PewDiePie and other online influencers to promote the video game Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor — but not coming clean about the arrangement with consumers.
“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. “Companies like Warner Brothers need to be straight with consumers in their online ad campaigns.”
The agency barred the game publisher from engaging in such deceptive marketing practices in the future or risk civil penalties or even a contempt charge in federal court.
According to the FTC’s complaint, Warner Bros. wanted to generate buzz in the gaming community for its 2014 role-playing fantasy game that was loosely based on “The Hobbit” and “Lord of the Rings” movie trilogies. Its ad agency, Plaid Social Labs, hired influencers to create sponsored videos promoting the title, post these videos on YouTube and promote them on Twitter and Facebook.
PewDiePie’s video alone garnered 3.7 million views.
Warner Bros. gave the influencers advance access to the game and paid hundreds to tens of thousands of dollars for them to heap fawning praise of the title. The contract laid out specific terms for how influencers would tout Shadow of Mordor — including a requirement the video feature game play, issue a strong call to action that would send viewers to the game’s website and omit any criticism or references to bugs or glitches.
PewDiePie and others were required, by contract, to disclose that the videos had been sponsored — but they didn’t need to do so conspicuously, in a way consumers would notice (either on the video itself or prominently in the description box). On at least two occasions, influencers said they’d been given early access to the game — but not that they’d been paid to post the video, the FTC found.
On a PewDiePie gameplay video of the title, the description box reads “this video was sponsored by Warner Brother [sic],” but it’s hidden behind the “show more” button.
The FTC has been monitoring native advertising and online endorsements since last year, cracking down on deceptive marketing campaigns where the influencers fail to disclose a financial relationship with the product they’re promoting.
This spring, it dinged the department store Lord & Taylor for deceptive use of native advertising. In that case, 50 influencers were paid $1,000 to $4,000 each to post Instagram photos of themselves in the same asymmetrical paisley dress on the same weekend and include the campaign hashtag: #designLab.
Correction: The original headline on this article incorrectly stated that Warner Bros. paid a fine.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.