If you're a fan of Lord of the Rings, you may very well know about the Federal Trade Commission's settlement this week over Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor, a video game loosely based on the trilogy. 

The FTC announced that it had reached a consent agreement with Warner Bros. Home Entertainment, which it accused of paying video game enthusiasts up to tens of thousand of dollars to post positive reviews of the videogame before it was released, in late 2014.

Although the company, through its advertising agency, instructed the so-called YouTube “influencers” to post a notice that the videos were sponsored, the FTC said the notices were visible only to those who scrolled down or clicked on a link. The videos themselves, which also were posted on Twitter and Facebook, contained no disclosure that they were promotional, the FTC said. 

The FTC said the videos were viewed more than 5.5 million times.

The case against Warner Bros. Home Entertainment provides an inside look at how some companies control what is said about their products. According to the complaint, the video game reviewers were instructed to promote a “positive sentiment” about the game and not to show any bugs or glitches. They also were told to make one Facebook post or tweet in support of their videos. 

“A lot of consumers watch these videos by the YouTube influencers to decide whether to buy a game,” says Linda Badger, the FTC lead attorney in the case. “A consumer looking at these videos would not have the necessary information to weigh what was being said.”

Under the order, the company must clearly disclose any connection to those who endorse its products. It also must take steps to ensure that endorsers or influencers comply with the conspicuous disclosure requirements. The company neither admitted or denied the allegations, the FTC says. 

Biased reviews may be more common than you think. In March, the clothing retailer, Lord & Taylor, settled FTC charges that it had paid 50 online fashion influencers up to $4,000 to post on Instagram and another social media site photos of themselves wearing a dress from a new 2015 collection. None of the posts, which the company approved in advance, disclosed that they were paid endorsements, the FTC said.

The retailer was also accused of placing an article in an online pop culture and fashion magazine without a notice that it was a paid endorsement.

The FTC is always on the lookout to ensure that disclosures between advertisers and product manufacturers are clearly made to consumers. But it can't catch every incident. "We aren't sitting around watching YouTube all day," says Matthew Gold, a staff attorney at the FTC in San Francisco. "And even if we did, we have no way of knowing if a video should be disclosed as sponsored just by looking at it and nor do consumers."

What to Do

Gold says that over the years, reviews that are sponsored by companies and not disclosed to consumers have become more prevalent. Consumers, he says, need to be on the lookout. Here's what to do:

  • Be skeptical. Always be skeptical when looking at reviews, whether they’re written, part of a video, or provided in any other format, advises Badger.
  • Heed the fine print. Look for disclosures, which could appear as fine print or as a voice-over.
  • Use multiple sources. Don’t rely on just a single source for user opinions. “It’s a good idea to look at a lot of reviews or reports. Just don’t rely on one,” says Badger. 
  • Look for balance. Often the most trustworthy reviews are those that have both positive and negative comments. Remember that a negative review, perhaps one posted by a competitor, can be as misleading as a positive one.
  • Search for factual statements. The most useful parts of a review may be verifiable statements. For instance, if a reviewer says that a refrigerator’s vegetable bin seems flimsy or is hard to open, that’s a claim you can check in the store.
  • Find consensus. If a reviewer makes a bogus claim, whether it’s because they’re biased or plain wrong, others often will disagree. Be sure to read all the reviews and responses to see where there’s agreement.
  • Include professional reviews. Sometimes you’ll find professional and user reviews in one place. For example, we found a review of the Shadow of Mordor video game by an editor at IGN, a game and entertainment company, with plenty of users chiming in with their opinions, both good and bad.

    If you suspect or know that a review is actually an undisclosed paid endorsement, report it to the FTC.