I’ve spent a decent amount of time in the past few days looking up YouTube videos by the campaign tags to watch the results of the for-pay advertising campaigns that have been all over the news.
I’ve learned that it’s very hard to do video content well, but some online personalities have mastered the art of playing a game and talking over the action, explaining what’s happening and why. I had fun, and began to understand why things such as Let’s Plays are becoming so popular. The content is fun and lighthearted in a way that’s hard to match in text.
It took a bit of education for me to know what videos had been paid for by Microsoft or EA. It’s not that disclosure past those tags is lacking, it’s that it doesn’t exist in large swaths of content. Once I understood campaign tags and the specific wording to watch for, it was surprising how many videos contained promotional material that was undisclosed unless you knew to look for that tag.
Viewers shouldn't have to dig for clues. It's time for better disclosure in video content, and this move will only help the people who create this fun and often informative content.
A new model, with new rules
Let’s start with two thoughts. First, video is a relatively new way to spread video game news, opinion and reviews, and the rules for how to do it well are still being written. Second, people who understand video and do it well for their audience deserve to be paid for their content. It’s important not to attack a new way of talking about games or to point fingers.
The argument that these agreements between publishers and video providers are just like most ad-supported content doesn’t hold up, however. Most sites have dedicated areas for ads, and those ads don’t change what’s written. This leads to some funny situations, such as when a negative story is surrounded by ads for the service being criticized, but the point remains the companies paying for the ads aren’t allowed to change what’s being said or how it’s framed.
The video ad campaigns don’t offer that sort of separation. Not only is the ad inside the content, in many cases it’s the content itself. If the personality creating the video says negative things about the product, they lose their ad revenue if the agreement states only positive things may be shared. The publisher creating the rules has direct control over what is said, and what is allowed in terms of criticism.
They can instruct the person creating the video not to focus on glitches, and they can add requirements for specific wording. There is no separation of church and state; the capital building has simply been moved inside the church. This is a far cry from ad placement on traditional news outlets, or clearly marked pre-roll ads on video content.
In an ideal world there would be some kind of disclosure about who is paying for these videos, and what limitations they place on the content, but that’s not happening in practice. The FTC rules that are often discussed are toothless, at least when it comes to the person being paid. There is nothing to be lost legally by not disclosing that you’re cashing checks from EA or Microsoft to promote their products directly to the audience, or that you’re being paid to avoid saying negative things about certain products or services.
Why it’s important to know
Understanding who pays for the content you consume is important, especially after it has been proven that the companies paying for videos have such direct control over what is said and shown. If someone has a negative thought about the Xbox One, they know they can’t express it during one of these videos or they will forfeit payment.
It’s not a chilling effect, where writers worry about alienating companies so ads are pulled, it’s a direct effect: They know for a fact that negative statements will lead to a loss of revenue. These campaigns give publishers control over editorial content in a way that’s impossible in traditional publishing.
What I’ve been told by multiple people working in video is that this is simply the way things are done. They want to make a living creating content that is enjoyable to watch, and that’s a fine goal for anyone who creates value for the audience. So how do we create better trust between the audience and the content creators while limiting the power publishers have over the content?
If EA is paying you to make a fun video about Battlefield, just say it! If you signed up to talk about the Xbox One and you like the system, and you honestly believe it’s a good system, simply tell your audience that Microsoft is supporting you when you deliver that message. This makes it clear that you have nothing to hide, and it also puts pressure on the person paying for the content: They are now also in the public eye.
If Microsoft creates strict rules for what can and can't be said by well-known video creators, it will hurt their brand as well. Disclosure helps content creators take back some of the power by bringing the audience into the know, and explaining what is being paid for, and what is being given in return.
If you feel like you have to hide who is paying you, you shouldn’t take the money. If you feel like there’s nothing wrong with it, being honest with your audience will build trust.
When someone goes to a gaming news outlet it’s easy to see who is advertising on the site, as the ads flank the content. Once the content becomes the ad, or the ads are seamlessly integrated into the video with nothing marking their existence, things become muddy. Simply saying, at the beginning of the video, who is paying for the content removes that issue. It invites the viewer inside the process and creates trust. It shows a level of respect for your audience and, after all, you're working for them, not the publishers. It's important to make that clear to everyone involved.
The publisher creating the rules has direct control over what is said, and what is allowed in terms of criticism.
Disclosure removes the feeling that the content creator and the publisher are secretly trying to sell a game or system to the audience. Being honest upfront means the audience and the content creator can have an honest discussion about the product again, with everyone understanding the parameters of that conversation. Make sponsorship open, disclosed and discussed.
There is no scandal if a well-trusted video personality explains why they like Battlefield so much, and why they signed up to create videos to help promote the game. In fact, that makes the advertising more effective: It becomes an endorsement that's both promotional and personal. EA should be begging for more discussion of this nature.
The person who allegedly leaked the original documents wasn’t trying to "nail" Microsoft or EA, they were trying to educate the people who watch these videos to look for campaign tags, since that was often the only form of disclosure that publishers saw the video as an advertisement. They wanted to create a consumer of content who is better informed about who is paying for what you're watching, and how that process could suppress certain opinions.
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And it's working. Microsoft has commented on the issue, and restrictions about what can and can't be said are now being openly discussed. They will likely be tilted slightly more in the content creator's favor if there is a fear of these agreements being made public. The situation has become better now that more people know what's going on, not worse. It's time for the people creating these videos to continue that process with full disclosure, on every video, every time their work contains sponsored content that's paid for by the companies they're discussing.
Video creators live and die with their audience, as does everyone who creates ad-supported content. Explaining how ads are being shown to that audience, or that the content itself contains for-pay content, allows a better relationship between the person viewing the video and the person making it. This isn't about pointing fingers, it's about making sure people who create content can get paid, retain control over the tone of their work and connect with an appreciative audience. Disclosure helps in all three ways.
Of course, we haven't seen every contract, and it's possible non-disclosure is part of the agreement. If that's the case there remains the possibility of running afoul of the FTC, and the more this is discussed openly the less power publishers will have to enforce or even ask for those sorts of consumer-hostile demands. The more popular video creators can simply deny their audience to advertisers by saying non-disclosure isn't an option, and that's the sort of move that helps tilt the power back in their favor.
There isn’t a scandal as much as its an opportunity to create a healthier ecosystem in video content, and that begins with talking about who is paying you, and what they get for that money. Shine a light on the practice and, not only can people see better, but the roaches flee.