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YouTube, EA’s 30 pieces of silver, and yet more damage to industry integrity

30 Jan 2014  by   Peter Parrish
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It’s a pretty disheartening time to be champion of YouTube objectivity. Last week, it emerged that prominent Battlefield 4 YouTubers were accepting a pay cheque from EA in return for saying lovely things about what turned out to be one of the most broken games of 2013.

EA insists that the rules of their ‘Ronku promotional partnerships’ specify that participants must disclose that videos are being sponsored by the publisher. Only the full contractual details (which I don’t have access to) could confirm that, but what is clear is that multiple popular YouTube channels did not follow Federal Trade Commission guidelines and EA apparently did nothing to police its own promotion. Almost as if they had something to gain from scores of Battlefield 4 videos that were financially obliged “not to focus on glitches” being seen by unsuspecting millions.

bf4-payola

EA’s step-by-step guide to selling out your integrity.

FTC guidelines are just that; guidelines. They provide a guide on how to avoid falling foul of US advertising laws, but aren’t actually enforceable in and of themselves. The FTC explained to Polygon how this works, but basically if you’re screwing up the guidelines you may trigger an FTC warning and investigation, which in turn could result in a charge of violating advertising law. It’s doubtful whether the FTC would bother going after individual YouTube users, and there’s unlikely to be enough of a legal trail to implicate EA, Microsoft or any of the other major companies engaging in these shenanigans.

Another case of the financially powerful exploiting weak regulation, right? That’s a depressing enough thought in itself, but what’s worse is how few people seem to care about the issue at all.

If you’re one of the people who doesn’t much care, this article may well struggle to change your mind. But I think many more people should care about this, and I’m going to do my best to explain why the EA scheme, and all others like it, are so damaging.

EA logo 1920x1080

It’s a little known, and made up, fact that EA actually stands for Elusive Advertising.

What do readers and viewers of videogame media want from their critics? I consider myself part of both circles, because as well as writing for IncGamers, I read and view plenty of stuff created by other people. Like most, I don’t want to waste my time, so I want those things to have meaning and critical value. By that, I mean works expressing views that are the critics’ own. Creations that are honest. If they’re funny and interesting, that all helps too.

Anybody who has accepted money to express a particular opinion about a game on behalf of the game’s publisher is no longer giving their own views. If that person does not disclose, in full, to their reader or viewership that a post or video is sponsored by an external source with a vested interest, they are being dishonest.

I’m pretty confident that “opinions restricted by a contractual obligation to be positive” and “dishonesty by omission” aren’t facets that many people look for in a critic of any media. We’re on safe ground there, right?

So when somebody on YouTube appears to be offering their own view on Battlefield 4, but in actual fact is accepting money from EA to say (or avoid saying) very specific things about the game, we can agree that’s a bad thing. It’s doing the exact opposite of the thing the video is purporting to do. Instead of one guy’s opinion on Battlefield 4, you’re getting EA’s “please, for the love of god, buy Battlefield 4“ message instead.

Battlefield 4 SP - 13

Here’s an image of Battlefield 4 that EA did not pay me to post.

I realise it’s difficult for online games journalism to criticise these practices without coming off as hypocritical. Between us, we’ve burned through a whole lot of credibility and trust. I can’t really blame a reader for rolling their eyes when a gaming site expresses shock at supposedly independent critics getting into bed with publishers. You don’t say! Now, how’s that exclusive day one review coming along?

Just as online sites all-but destroyed the mass market for printed games writing (and also destroyed people’s willingness to pay for any of it; a major factor in the low overall quality of online coverage,) YouTube personalities are chipping away at traditional sites. So it’s easy to paint this as pure revenge too. The online sites delighting in YouTube finally getting a splash from the “all games journalism is corrupt” brush.

There may be some truth in that. It’s always baffled me that YouTube has been regarded as a magical bastion of objectivity for so long, when all evidence suggested it was as fallible (more so in many respects) than any other system of criticism. But while it does please me that some people will now be revising that view, I don’t take any joy in the revelation that YouTubers took money to shill for videogames. That’s just depressing.

youtube

YouTube, more like YouBrokeMyHeart … Tube.

This isn’t about us being mad at YouTube. YouTube hosts some fantastic critics, and will continue to do so. They’ll be the ones making videos right now about how outrageous this whole thing is. Because they get it. They care.

The popularity of YouTube is precisely why this stuff matters. YouTube channels give their opinions to millions of people. Actual millions. You know who definitely thinks this is a big fucking deal? EA does. I’ve only got a passing familiarity with advertising rates, but I do know that the Ronku money of $10.00 USD per 1,000 views is an amount not to be sniffed at. These are companies who can afford to advertise videogames during major US sporting events. They have a lot of money to influence people with and they take a lot to time to consider where to spend it. From their perspective, buying YouTubers is money well spent.

So, if you’ve found a YouTube channel that you enjoy and that you feel has demonstrated their integrity, please keep watching them. A critic like that can be as rare as a unicorn with a legitimate Half-Life 3 release date painted on their flank.

Obviously if you’re an IncGamers reader, we hope you feel we provide you with that too (the integrity, not the unicorn.) If you’re swinging by for the first time, hello. We’re not the best-known PC site out there, but we try very hard to earn enough to survive while keeping marketing at arms-length. Here’s our Battlefield 4 review. We found it was pretty broken. So we said so.

See if you can spot the subtle and subliminal advertising in this image.

It didn’t help that Microsoft and the Xbox One were the first to be implicated in this mess, because it unwittingly fed into the newly dug trenches of the latest console wars. Too many interpreted it as just another bomb to lob at Microsoft, rather than a widespread issue that affects everybody. “Sony probably do it too!” came the cry. Yeah, maybe. That would be just as shameful. Show me some evidence and let’s expose those guys too.

When people just stop caring, it makes me sad. I want people to be up in arms about “bought” criticism in any sphere, but especially videogames because that’s the area in which I work. Call us out. Hold us to account. Support the people you like, but don’t cling to them when they’re exposed as industry shills. With FTC and advertising law so weak, it’s the only way things can improve.

In the recording industry payola scandal of the 1950s it was the cash-pocketing DJs who took the biggest hit to their credibility, while the major record promoters continued on pretty much unscathed. Since the majority of wrongdoing in this affair seems to be ethical rather than legal, the same outcome is likely. A whole lot of YouTubers just threw away a whole lot of trust for EA’s 30 pieces of silver, and trust is something critics cannot easily re-establish. The games writing industry learned that lesson. If their audience cares enough, YouTube will learn it too.

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  1. ryan dungey
    -10

    you do realise EA was only paying for people to show coverage of the game and wasnt buying them out and telling them to say good things multiple youtubers who were part of this programme have came out and said that they werent being paid to say nice things etc the only part was not to focus on game bugs and glitches they were aloud to show them and talk about them but not focus entire videos on them. they were aloud to say if they didnt like it thought it was bad etc unlike the programme microsoft had in place with machinima and its partners

    January 30, 2014 at 9:00 pm

    1. DavidTheSlayer
      +3

      If I agreed to take any form of cash compensation for talking about Battlefield 4 over my YouTube channel, that would mean I would have been brought out, as is any form of paid endorsement/sponsorship.

      Whilst they might not be paid and told directly to say that they have to say good and only good things about the game. They also stopped purely negative but constructive feedback types of videos, so you’re still subject to them reviewing your video for negative comments and claiming it for copyright infringement (sweeping it under the carpet). Some PR companies have done this, it’s been covered on here before. Not saying you’re wrong, but it’s quite a grey area despite the rules.

      January 30, 2014 at 9:30 pm
  2. Avatar of
    SLowrAM
    0

    I guess it’s disappointing, but I’m one who doesn’t care. I don’t go to youtube for trusted reviews. If they were paying a site I do visit for reviews than that would be a store that would catch my interest.
    As it is I hope the law is enforced and EA is punished if found guilty, but I care little about the coverage (good to know it occurred though) because I find it difficult to imagine many people go to youtube for reliable product review coverage. I use it more to see what the games/products look like or if I’m stuck in an area and want to see how someone actually got past it.

    January 31, 2014 at 12:55 am
  3. Avatar of
    Lazerbeak
    +2

    Great article Peter cheers,
    If your boss pays you to write a report on him, he may well say..
    “Don’t worry mate write whatever you like”
    You would be very foolish to write..

    “He is a incompatant, venal, sexually defucional asrshole with a massive belly and bad breath, but on the upside, has a very tidy desk”,

    I suspect the youtube channels are hiding their involvement with EA because they know it makes them look like money grabbing, morally vacuous, knobheads.

    January 31, 2014 at 10:27 am
  4. Avatar of
    Lazerbeak
    +2

    This goes further than youtube IMHO, I don’t major game review sites anymore either, too many times I have played a game that got rave reviews on the major sites, only find its a pile of crap, I have long suspected something dodgy is going on, which is way I use this site, Im off to get some more tin foil.

    January 31, 2014 at 10:32 am

  5. Laffen
    +4

    And the bottom line is that ” Money Talks ” even if your a tuber or not.
    most of the big tubers do it for a living and if your offered money to promote a game/product or whatever is the bottom line their income. i was hoping that FTC would have followed true with their guidelines and take the necessary steps to keep the “Guidelines ” in place and punish those who don`t. but overall ” Money Talks “

    January 31, 2014 at 1:15 pm
  6. Avatar of
    Executr
    +2

    Nice read, Mr. Parrish.
    It reminds how developers/publishers censor reviews in the new user-review section on Steam, or how they block and erase posts with opinions they don’t agree in forums. But that’s for another article.

    January 31, 2014 at 3:31 pm
    1. Avatar of
      Lazerbeak
      +1

      “It reminds how developers/publishers censor reviews in the new user-review section on Steam” hmm I didnt know that do you have any source (I am not doubting you) for that info?.

      February 1, 2014 at 11:35 am
      1. Avatar of
        Executr
        +1

        I remember seeing some reviews in the recently released game called Rekoil. In fact, I think the highest rated review was hidden, due to complaints from the developers/publishers.

        February 1, 2014 at 8:26 pm
  7. +1

    Being paid to look the other way isn’t something new and I’m not surprised to see it turn up with YTers and streamers either.

    February 1, 2014 at 2:49 pm

  8. GladiatorSquirrel

    We can be thankful that the EA manger in charge is not in any business concerning our environment. Another good thing is that you can easily avoid these games by just not buying EA games.

    February 24, 2014 at 12:50 am

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