While it's fun watching "Clueless Gamer," Conan O’Brien's regular segment where he plays video games and makes witty comments for his show on TBS, apparently it can cost a developer or publisher a lot of money to get air time on the show. While not everyone pays to be on the show, about a quarter of the products featured on the segment have to pay some sort of fee. The show does not disclose this fact either.
This is according to publication, Re/code, which has an extensive report on what it takes to get a game on the show. Apparently money is the grease for the squeaky wheel.
A spokesperson for the show says that these segments are not endorsements or reviews - they are simply comedy sketches and therefore do not require a disclosure.
"These Clueless Gamer segments are not serious reviews nor endorsements — they are strictly comedic sketches," the show spokesman said in an emailed statement to Re/code. "We do not believe sponsorship identification is needed.”
"These are not reviews, they are comedy bits,” the spokesman explained. “Conan makes it very clear that he is not a qualified video game reviewer at the top of each segment."
Though paying for exposure on the show "does not guarantee the game will be featured," Re/code offers examples where companies that did not pay received negative or lukewarm reviews or comments. Re/code points to the Halloween special that aired in October of last year, where O’Brien reviewed three survival-horror games: Parsec Productions’ Slender: The Eight Pages, Frictional Games’ Amnesia: The Dark Descent and Red Barrels’ Outlast. After dissing the first two titles, O’Brien spent most of the segment playing Outlast, which he called "fantastic."
Parsec’s founder Mark Hadley and Frictional’s creative director Thomas Grip did not pay money to the show, but a spokeswoman for Red Barrels, through its PR agency TriplePoint, confirmed that the studio paid $35,000 for Outlast’s inclusion.
Palermo said the pay-for-play program is "a routine aspect of game-marketing strategies," and that she believed that all the game reviews on the show were paid placements.
“He [Conan] doesn’t see the game until after the producers have vetted it,” Palermo said. “You may pay for it, and he may hate it.”
She also said that O’Brien was not asked to review Outlast favorably as a condition of the payment.
When asked about this particular topic, FTC spokeswoman Betsy Lordan said that any time money changes hands for product placement it should be disclosed.
"In general terms, however, any ‘material connection’ between an endorser and an advertisement should be disclosed," FTC spokeswoman Betsy Lordan said. “This includes payment in cash or kind, and as well as a family connection or an employee-employer relationship."
Lordan declined to comment on the specifics of Clueless Gamer, pointing to the commission’s endorsement guidelines.
Re/code also talked to Columbia Journalism School professor Emily Bell, who said that when some reviews are paid and others are not, there’s "no wiggle room if the audience doesn’t know the full story."
"It doesn’t matter if it’s a joke," Bell said of O’Brien’s skit. "It’s still a sales method. … I can’t really see any way in which it could possibly be anything other than unethical."