Race has been a big topic in the movie industry this year. The Oscars were overshadowed by criticism for a lack of ethnic diversity, prompting a number of Hollywood players to boycott the awards ceremony.
We’ve also seen various claims of appropriation thrown at Hollywood, including the upcoming Nina Simone biopic. That’s a lot of controversy squeezed into the first three months of 2016, but there’s plenty more to come it seems. Now Facebook and Universal are teaming up to create an entirely new race row after being called out for showing different film trailers to audiences based on their ethnicity.
Universal targets ethnic audiences
The criticism actually stems from promotional trailers for last year’s N.W.A. biopic, Straight Outta Compton, which is about a group that emerges from the streets of Compton in Los Angeles and revolutionises Hip Hop culture in the 1980s. Universal and Facebook teamed up to create various trailers for the film, each aimed at different audiences. Mark Zuckerberg’s social platform is exceptionally good at doing this and the prospect of creating film trailers that peak different audiences’ interests is exciting.
However, Facebook and Universal played the race card by creating separate trailers for Straight Outta Compton, based on the ethnicity of different audiences.
Wut? Facebook showed whites and blacks diff versions of ads, calls it a ‘victory’ for race-specific advertising https://t.co/3UQGDcjCA3
— Julia Angwin (@JuliaAngwin) March 18, 2016
Brian Clark sums up how African American, Hispanic and non-African American’s were shown different trailers in his article for The Next Web. He starts by highlighting the idea of Universal marketing chief Doug Neil that the “general population” (referring to people who are neither African American nor Hispanic) aren’t familiar enough with N.W.A. or the musical significance of members such as Dr. Dre and Ice Cube.
“They connected to Ice Cube as an actor and Dr. Dre as the face of Beats [headphones].” – Doug Neil
The trailers for African American and Hispanic audiences were different, however:
“The trailer marketed to African Americans was completely different. The group assumed that this segment of the population was familiar with Ice Cube and Dr. Dre’s individual musical catalogues, as well as the rap group N.W.A. Because of the familiarity, the trailer featured more images of N.W.A., rather than focusing solely on Ice Cube and Dr. Dre.
Hispanics saw mostly the same trailers as African Americans, although the spot was shorter and featured quotes in Spanish.” – Bryan Clark, The Next Web.
Essentially, the trailers for the “general population” take the emphasis away from the group N.W.A. and promote the movie more as the story of Dr. Dre and Ice Cube’s rise to fame. Meanwhile, the African American trailers focus on the earlier struggles of the group’s three members and the lifestyles that shaped them.
Criticism of Universal’s marketing approach
The criticism of Facebook and Universal over these trailers comes down to making assumptions about audiences based on their ethnicity. To assume black Americans know and can identify with the story of N.W.A. is a pretty controversial approach to make so public. Likewise, guessing that white viewers are oblivious to the fact Dr. Dre changed the face of Hip Hop multiple times before putting his name on headphones is also a bold assumption.
The tough question here is whether Universal has gone too far with its audience targeting or if this counts as good video localisation. Universal’s marketing chief Doug Neil describes the campaign as a “complete success”. Meanwhile, films like Star Wars have produced separate trailers for specific audiences, including a highly targeted release for Japanese viewers:
The marketing team behind the latest Star Wars movie doesn’t appear to have made any assumptions about Japanese viewers’ comprehension of the previous releases, though. Star Wars is also a fictional story set in a galaxy far, far away. Straight Outta Compton isn’t. The rise of N.W.A. was a very real, highly politicised and very big deal for black culture in America.
Those facts make the N.W.A. biopic a much tougher product to market, localise and target to specific audiences. Drawing on racial lines is always risky, especially when it goes public. However, Universal’s marketing choices were based on data; there is no target African American setting in Facebook – the data took care of that. Firms do this all the time for males, females, different ages, nationalities and also ethnicity. Right or wrong, that’s how the industry works. It’s an industry of assumptions.
Unfortunately, the danger is always present that you can upset sections of an audience by trying too hard to please them. There’s also the inevitability that your assumptions won’t apply to everyone that comes across your marketing material, which goes to show you can’t underestimate the importance of these decisions when adapting your content for various audiences, especially when ethnic identity is on the cards.