You may have seen the recent reports that Warner Bros. paid YouTube stars thousands of dollars to promote their 2014 game release of Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor – a fact that shocked many news outlets and consumers.
The paid promotions generally took the form of positive video reviews, which were not permitted to contain any negative sentiments towards the game or Warner Bros. Warner Bros. has recently settled with the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) after being accused of hiding the payments from consumers. The studio is now banned from hiding similar deals in the future and from portraying that sponsored videos are the work of independent producers.
The idea of paying influencers like YouTube personalities for sponsored content is nothing new and, in line with the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) and the FTC, Google has a number of guidelines for bloggers posting sponsored content – particularly that they should clearly disclose any incentives or paid relationships around sponsored posts.
YouTube is, of course, slightly different. It’s possible to disclose the nature of a video (sponsored or not) either in the video itself, or in the information box below the video – something that Warner Bros. advised the reviewers to do. However, as the information box only displays a certain amount of text, you can ‘hide’ sponsorship disclosures below the fold where they are invisible unless the viewer clicks on the “Show More” section. These disclosures also won’t show up when the video is embedded in social media posts – relevant to this case, as Warner Bros. required the reviewers to post about their review video on Twitter or Facebook.
Despite the ambiguity, the reviewers’ actions do count as a disclosure of sponsorship. The content that Warner Bros. paid for generally took the form of game-play videos – not, technically, advertorials – and they did advise influencers to disclose that the video was sponsored. Brands, publishers and influencers all share responsibility for how sponsored content is presented. As per Google guidelines, brands can and should request that the sponsorship is disclosed and make suggestions as how to do this, but the question still stands – does that final responsibility lie with them?
This latest ruling reflects the ongoing industry debate about how to handle the rise of influencer marketing and the major cash top influencers can now command. From the days of general disclosures on an influencer’s blog, we’re now seeing hashtags like #ad and #sponsored and calls from industry boards for greater clarity and transparency. This all makes sense as the regulators struggle to get a handle on this emerging marketing practice. As influencer marketing becomes more monetised, it follows that it will also become more regulated. How strict this regulation is and with whom the ultimate responsibility lies – the brand or the influencer – remains to be seen.
For further information on the UK’s rules around sponsored video content, see the CAP’s guidelines.
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