If there are two things I love, it is the law and targeting Felix Kjellberg.
Regular patrons of ours may know that I harbor no special love for Felix, better known to the Internet as PewDiePie. I have always found obnoxious the idea that someone can make a good living playing video games and screaming into a camera for the rollicking amusement of people who find that to be the pinnacle of comedy. I will not front; I am a hater and I lack the temperament to pretend it is anything but contempt for the relative treatment of the entertainment industry to the cause of aiding the destitute. This, however, goes far beyond me being sanctimonious about Felix’s career. This is about the titans of entertainment skirting the law.
Recently, the Federal Trade Commission of the United States issued a public statement that Warner Bros. wants to settle a case in which the FTC accused Warner Bros. of failing to disclose adequately that it paid people to talk up the 2014 video game Shadow of Mordor in gameplay videos. Plenty of people who deal in entertainment and/or social media realize that the FTC changed its rules a few years ago and required independent contractors who are being paid to promote something to disclose that fact publicly. To illustrate, we have this case study in which Warner Bros. published Shadow of Mordor. Warner Bros. then sent off its hype train chug-chug-chugging along by distributing advance copies of the game to what the press statement calls “online ‘influencers'” to say good things about it and then disseminate these opinions through social media sites. Well, okay, that is not so bad. In fact, people do it all the time. Why is this different? The FTC alleged that Warner Bros. did not tell the influencers specifically to disclose this sponsorship relationship in a place where consumers could conspicuously see or hear it. That probably does not sound bad on its own, but Warner Bros. went further by instructing influencers to bury the disclosure in that space hidden under the “Show More” drop-down area under YouTube videos. Thus, on the one hand, it does not seem so bad that Warner Bros. did not order influencers to observe the law when it really should not have to do that. On the other hand, Warner Bros. looks significantly guiltier when it is telling influencers to flout the law. The FTC also said Warner Bros. had to approve these videos and approved one video that lacked an adequate sponsorship disclosure entirely. Oops.
You might be wondering why any of this matters. Put simply, the FTC has these regulations in place to make it clear when some guy on the Internet is talking about First 4 Figures just because he really likes his new NiGHTS statue without any prompting and when someone is disingenuously being someone else’s mouthpiece, which brings us to Felix. The FTC said that promotional material falling into this latter category amounted to over five and a half million video views, of which Felix contributed 3.7 million views. Said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, “Consumers have the right to know if reviewers are providing their own opinions or paid sales pitches.” It is hard not to feel disgust at these odious tactics to promote a video game. This all might sound like a lot of babble in the abstract, but when John Bain, better known as Total Biscuit, blew the whistle on this in 2014 and then Jim Sterling pulled the lid off of exactly what Warner Bros. required of influencers, it suddenly becomes significantly more vile. Influencers were supposed to make repeated calls to action to direct viewers to buy the game, direct viewers on how to register for the game, use both live streaming and YouTube as visual aids and both Facebook and Twitter as social networking promotional tools, speak only good things about the game and avoid mentioning or showing bugs and glitches, and even suggested what the subjects of discussion for influencers should be and how long they should talk about these subjects. Put simply, Warner Bros. told YouTubers what to say, how to say it, paid them to do it, and then told them to hide the fact that their “opinions” were puppeted. The whole business reeks of deceptive practices by Warner Bros. However, it is magnified millions of times by the fact that there is collusion with YouTubers like Felix, whose opinions are sought because he somehow speaks to the common gamer. One wonders what that says about how straight these influencers are with all of us.
Maybe most galling is the fact that there is no particular outcry over this. For the few people who even know and care about integrity in video games journalism, this should be seen as a modest victory for bringing a spotlight into shady activity. The problem is that there are about five of us in the whole world who know and care about this sort of thing. The real losers in this whole, sordid affair are the consumers like you and me. Now, you might want to say that if little Jimmy bought Shadow of Mordor just because Felix told him to, that is his problem and not yours. Let us assume, then, that you want to buy shoes, but not just any shoes; you need the dopest, flyest, freshest 2 def kicks that are like stupid phat. Yes, you can go into any shoe store and a floor walker will show you shoes because he/she is paid to do that. Consequently, you treat recommendations by the floor walker differently than if your best friend suddenly comes into the store and recommends a pair of shoes because that is the same pair your best friend has. Of course, you would be more likely to scrutinize your best friend’s recommendation if you found out your best friend was also making a sales commission for selling shoes to you and recommended the most expensive shoes possible to you to maximize his/her profit, made entirely at your expense.
It is obvious that Warner Bros. did not need to go to such lengths to control its marketing, given that Shadow of Mordor received rave reviews anyway. There were plenty of people who bought the game for reasons other than watching someone else peddle it; they are not the subject of this discussion. My concern is that there are YouTubers over whom a question mark is now hanging because they traded values for a vacation because they were complicit with a plan that skirted around FTC regulations. Despite a potential violation of the law, the vast majority of people neither know nor care, and that is the best that Warner Bros. could ask for in this scenario: the less it is spoken of, the better for the company. Both Warner Bros. and all of the YouTubers who joined in this enterprise should be held accountable and questioned openly about their involvement. It is high time we police ourselves and act like rational beings instead of sheep begging to be fleeced by Felix and friends.
“Baa, baa, black sheep, have you any wool?”
“Yes, sir; yes, sir; 3.7 million bags full!”