Gaming website VG 24/7 is just like any other gaming website out there; they put out the content on a daily basis, covering any and everything as often as they can. Like any other large site operating on the net, they have a mix of standard ads and promotional affiliate ads. The only problem is that they don’t seem keen on disclosing their affiliate links.
Things originally kicked into gear when Reddit user Wodge spotted an article on VG 24/7 last week on November 25th, 2015 about Ubisoft’s The Division and noticed that it linked out to Amazon but there was no disclosure on the page about the site using affiliate links or that it was a promotional ad. Wodge spotted the affiliate tag, which indicates that it’s a paid link. Wodge provided an example in one of the posts:
Now, to the benefit of doubt there are some affiliate tools for some ad programs that auto-add some keyword links to an article. However, in the case of VG 24/7 the article has only one direct outbound affiliate link to Amazon and no links to keywords such as “PS4” or “Xbox”.
Just to be sure I did attempt to reach out to the author of the article and the site’s publisher, Patrick Garrett, to notify and ask them about the situation last week. However, at the time of publishing this article neither has responded, nor have they updated the articles to include disclosure for the affiliate links.
While the single affiliate link seemed like it could have been a one-off case, I did search the rest of the site for additional affiliate tags and more than 250 articles popped up. Each article has a single outbound link to Amazon, usually tagged to the name of the game or product. There are no public disclosures available on any of the articles. The anonymous users of 8chan put together links of some of some of the pages that contained affiliate links on VG 24/7, which can be viewed in two separate pastebin files.
The FTC updated the guidelines on promotional ads and endorsements earlier this year in June after a campaign was organized by #GamerGate to address the issue of undisclosed promotional material or paid advertisements. In the updated guide by the FTC, they explicitly mention about affiliate marketing for websites, stating…
“In some instances – like when the affiliate link is embedded in your product review – a single disclosure may be adequate. When the review has a clear and conspicuous disclosure of your relationship and the reader can see both the review containing that disclosure and the link at the same time, readers have the information they need. “
“As for where to place a disclosure, the guiding principle is that it has to be clear and conspicuous. The closer it is to your recommendation, the better. Putting disclosures in obscure places – for example, buried on an ABOUT US or GENERAL INFO page, behind a poorly labeled hyperlink or in a “terms of service” agreement – isn’t good enough.
“Consumers should be able to notice the disclosure easily. They shouldn’t have to hunt for it.”
Before June it was common to find affiliate links with no disclosure, but following the FTC’s update this year it seemed as if the rules were made pretty clear. The 250 affiliate links in VG 24/7 articles have all appeared within the past month. This kind of undisclosed affiliate promotion put Gawker in the crosshairs of the FTC last year when #GamerGate filed complaints and the trade commission instituted an investigation into their activity. Later on the FTC mentioned that they would be keeping a closer eye on sites like Gawker for misleading native advertising.
[Update:] I reached out to the associate director at the FTC as to whether or not an investigation could take place, and I was told via e-mail…
“I can’t say for sure whether this is something the Commission would pursue if brought to our attention. We generally follow-up on these sorts of complaints but whether we open an investigation, and then whether an investigation turns into a law enforcement action, depends on a variety of factors. Certainly you should feel free to submit a complaint.”
Now some people pointed out that VG 24/7 operates out of the U.K. However, the FTC still works with international partners to help enforce fair competition and consumer protection, as outlined on their international policy page.
Originally the consumer protection bracket was handled by the U.K’s Office of Fair Trading. Unfortunately the office shut down last year on April 1st, 2014. Nevertheless, you can still utilize some of the tools that the FTC provides to consumers through their consumer complaints page.