Netflix Accused of Promoting Content by Targeting Viewers’ Race, but the Company Says That’s Impossible

"We don't ask members for their race, gender, or ethnicity so we cannot use this information to personalize their individual Netflix experience," the company said in a statement.

Netflix is defending itself against accusations on social media that it targets viewers by using race to promote its various television series and film offerings. Stacia L. Brown, creator of the podcast “Rise of Charm City” and a writer with bylines at The Washington Post, Buzzfeed, Rolling Stone, and more, gained attention on Twitter after observing some films on Netflix being advertised to her with posters featuring black characters, even if the film predominantly starred a white cast.

Brown posted a photo of her Netflix account with the film poster for Lauren Miller Rogen’s comedy “Like Father,” which was released on the streaming platform over the summer. The movie stars Kristen Bell and Kelsey Grammer in the lead roles, with Seth Rogen, Paul W. Downs, and Zach Appelman in supporting roles, but Netflix promoted the film to Brown with a poster featuring black actors Leonard Ouzts and Blaire Brook. Not only are Ouzts and Brook not main characters in the film, but, as Brown noted, they only appear on screen for “maybe 10 minutes” and only have “20 lines between them.”

Tobi Aremu, a filmmaker based in Brooklyn, New York, noticed something similar with the way Netflix was promoting its summer romantic-comedy “Set It Up” to him. Aremu told The Guardian that instead of a poster featuring the lead characters portrayed by Zoey Deutch and Glen Powell, Netflix advertised “Set It Up” to him with an image of supporting actors Lucy Liu and Taye Diggs.  The film was “made to look like a two-hander between Taye Diggs and Lucy Liu, but they were secondary characters in the love story of a young white couple,” Aremu said.

The issue was not an isolated one for Brown, either. The holiday romance “Love Actually” has a sprawling ensemble cast, any one of whom could be featured on a poster or thumbnail on Netflix, but the website used an image featuring Chiwetel Ejiofor to promote the movie to Brown. Netflix users responded to Brown with their own observations, which included one white subscriber being advertised the Netflix comedy series “The Good Cop” with a poster of lead actors Josh Groban and Tony Danza and a black subscriber being advertised the same show with an image of supporting actor Isiah Whitlock Jr.

Netflix said in a statement (via The Fader) that it’s impossible for the website to target viewers via race since they have no way of knowing what the specific race is of each subscriber. The streaming giant said it promotes shows based on its algorithm, which takes into consideration what subscribers have streamed in the past.

“Reports that we look at demographics when personalizing artwork are untrue,” Netflix said. “We don’t ask members for their race, gender, or ethnicity so we cannot use this information to personalize their individual Netflix experience. The only information we use is a member’s viewing history. In terms of thumbnails, these do differ and regularly change. This is to ensure that the images we show people are useful in deciding which shows to watch.”

Check out Brown’s tweets on the issue below.

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