On the YouTube moneyhat scandal…

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Moneyhat

Since the dawn of games journalism, and especially since the advent of the internet, publications have been accused of pocketing cash from the people who make, sell or market games for favourable coverage. “Moneyhats,” you’ll often see plastered in forums or comments when a site says nice things about a product or game that the internet dissenter disagrees with. It’s for that reason that many have turned to YouTubers for their opinions. YouTubers are gamers like us. They’re honest. They’d never take money to shill a product. Nope. Never.

This week, news emerged that Machinima offered its YouTube partners extra cash if they said nice things about the Xbox One. What’s shocking is the number of partners who accepted the agreement to make videos about the Xbox One with a positive spin. Here’s a list gathered by NeoGaffer Aquamarine, who did all the hard work so I didn’t have to.

More than 84 YouTubers with a collective reach of nearly 12 million subscribers accepted the agreement to evangelise the Xbox One. Andaccording to Microsoft and Machinima, it’s a pretty “typical” arrangement.

“This partnership between Machinima and Microsoft was a typical marketing partnership to promote Xbox One in December. The Xbox team does not review any specific content or provide feedback on content,” the companies said in a statement. 

Now, information has come out that EA’s been paying YouTubers for their opinions as well. Electronic Arts apparently has whole program which pays YouTube fans to promote its games, like Battlefield 4, The Sims and Need for Speed. It’s called Ronku, and EA’s confirmed its existence.

“Through EA’s Ronku program, some fans are compensated for the YouTube videos they create and share about our games,” a company spokesman told The Verge. “The program requires that participants comply with FTC guidelines and identify when content is sponsored. User-generated videos are a valuable and unique aspect of how gamers share their experiences playing the games they love, and one that EA supports.”

Here’s an example of one of the Ronku assignments, which netted EA over 20 million YouTube views.

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The problem isn’t that EA and Microsoft (and quite probably, other publishers) have stumbled on a new way to advertise their products. The problem is one of disclosure. How do you know that the YouTube personality whose opinions you hang on is expressing genuine opinions, or is just doing it for the cash? You don’t – especially when they’re contractually obliged to keep endorsements a secret

Some of the more prolific YouTubers have spoken out against the whole thing, implying that YouTubers are “more honest” than the press, which is quite honestly nonsense.

 

The incredibly funny, frankly brilliant Matt Lees, former video chap at Videogamer.com summed it up thusly.

 

Boogie2988, who you might know as the fellow behind the “Francis” persona, explained a bit about how YouTube and marketing work. Marketing is a reality; whether it’s a big YouTuber, a site or a magazine.

It’s the sort of thing we’ve dealt with – and continue to deal with. We’ve never been paid for our opinion, nor have we been paid to withhold our opinion. Yes, we have advertising for games plastered all over the site – it’s a reality of the business, and it’s how we get paid. We need to keep the server going, and we like to eat food on occasion. That advertising, however, never sways opinion, and I believe this to be true for pretty much most sites and magazines. When Alien: Colonial Marines (as an example) was reviewed, we just happened to have an unfortunate advert for the game right next to the review.

We’ve also, more recently, been called out putting our affiliate links in to posts, so we earn money if you buy from clicks within the site. This is absolutely true; however it’s never a case of “Retailer X has asked us to promote these games in exchange for money, so get to it!” It is always, always a case of “Hey! Have you seen that Retailer X has these things people might want on special? Let’s post that!” And then some time later, one of us will remember that hey, we may as well try and earn some cash off of that, and put the links in (which is a tiresome, tedious process – but it gets us lunch. Sometimes.). When we are being paid to put up content, it’s clearly marked, as you can see here. 

The point I’m trying to make isn’t “trust us, we’re the paragon of integrity” or anything as iffy as that. Nor am I trying to instil an inherent distrust of YouTubers, or infer that the press is more honest and reliable. It’s not that marketing is evil, or Microsoft or EA should be ashamed of trying to get as much cheap marketing as they can. It’s all about disclosure; if you’re being paid to give a pre-determined opinion to your audience, let them know.

They deserve that at the very least.

Last Updated: January 22, 2014

Geoffrey Tim

Editor. I'm old, grumpy and more than just a little cynical. One day, I found myself in possession of a NES, and a copy of Super Mario Bros 3. It was that game that made me realise that games were more than just toys to idly while away time - they were capable of being masterpieces. I'm here now, looking for more of those masterpieces.

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