Netflix’s ethnic and genre targeting goes too far

If you subscribe to Netflix, you know that as soon as you turn it on, your home page will show still images for various shows that they are promoting for you specifically to watch. I knew of course that they use some kind of algorithm to determine your likes and dislikes, presumably based on your past viewing history. What I had not realized was that they are also trying to deduce whether I am a person of color or not and if they felt that I was, they would show a different still image featuring actors of color, even if they had just minor roles in the film or TV show. Here is an example.

What people of color are objecting to is not that they are being targeted by color but what amounts to false advertising, promising stories about the lives of people of color when that is not the case

“This feels like a step too far,” said Tobi Aremu, 26, a film-maker from Brooklyn. Recently he watched the film Set It Up, “which 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!”

To him, the misrepresentation of Netflix’s actual offer felt problematic. “It’s beyond feeling duped,” he said. “Because if something is black, I take no offence in being catered to. I am black, give me black entertainment, give me more – but don’t take something that isn’t and try to present like it is. I wonder what the makers of those shows and films think. If it was me, I would be very upset.”

Londoner Tolani Shoneye, a host on The Receipts Podcast, said: “It’s intrusive. It’s the dark side of marketing. I noticed it a while ago with a Zac Efron film that I’d already seen, but Netflix kept showing me it as a Michael B Jordan movie.”

She thought it was odd at first but then assumed that everyone must be shown the same posters. To her, Netflix’s ambition to satisfy its diverse membership is failing to match up to its content. “There was 30 minutes of a romcom I ended up watching last week because I thought it was about the black couple I was shown on the poster. I want to see those stories. They know I want to see those stories. Why don’t they just make more of them?”

The microtargeting goes beyond viewer ethnicity.

In a company blogpost explaining the technology, Netflix showed how the 1997 Oscar-winner Good Will Hunting would be presented to different users: for heavy romcom watchers, the poster would show Matt Damon and Minnie Driver kissing. For comedy fans, it would be a solo image of Robin Williams. There was no mention that if you watched the Wayans brothers oeuvre or Dear White People, your homepage would convince you that The Crown is a more diverse show than it is.

I usually watch shows that I have specifically selected based on what I have read or heard about them and never go by Netflix’s recommendations. As far as I can tell, Netflix has not pegged me for a black viewer though given my somewhat eclectic tastes, their recommendations for what they think I might like are sometimes wildly and amusingly off. I did watch the film Dear White People but that was not sufficient for Netflix to peg me as black. I have queued up the TV series but have not watched it yet. It will be interesting to see if the still photos change after that.


  1. says

    I watch a number of things that are apparently correlated with being a Black viewer. I also watch more than average amounts of woman-led shows/movies. I also skew decidedly feminist in some of the things I watch -- when a feminist option exists in the genre I’m considering.

    I’m clearly on the edge in various algorithms. I had noticed that the Jessica Jones promo image changes from hard-edge Jones to her radio-host sidekick and wealthy white-lady character, Trish, to her neighbor and now business associate, the Black recovering-addict Malcom. That didn’t immediately strike me as odd, but then I noticed that the promo image would be stable for a while before changing shortly after I watched a movie with Black-focussed or mainstream-feminism focussed content. When it switched, it would seem to switch back to Jessica’s photo easier than it would switch directly back and forth between Malcom and Trish. Eventually I deliberately manipulated it by waiting until it had a promo photo of Trish, then watching a few episodes of Dear White People…and sure enough, it switched directly to Malcom.

    Because of that I went from believing they were making random switches just to make sure that eventually everyone saw the image that might be most likely to appeal, to believing they were making deliberate switches, trying to keep a steady categorization of me, but simply failing to accurately pigeon-hole this white lady who likes marvel comics blockbuster action/adventures, anything action that features a woman lead character, comedy that subverts white dominance, Shakespeare and anyone else who can’t stop writing cross-dressing characters, feminist history, paleontology and astronomy documentaries, and shows I can watch with my 10-13 year old kids. Oddly, I rarely like shows with trans characters. Very often they’re painful to watch -- either because they don’t strike me as honest or because they do. Sometimes I watch them anyway, of course, but not with the glee, enthusiasm, and regularity that I watch comedies that subvert normally invisible, racially dominant assumptions.

  2. John Morales says

    Yeah, I too have Netflix and I find it risibly clueless in its suggestions.

    Whatever its granularity, it’s clearly insufficient to accommodate such as me.

    Artificial stupidity, is what their algos give me.

    (Probably doesn’t help I don’t rate stuff I watch, of course)

  3. says

    @John Morales:

    (Probably doesn’t help I don’t rate stuff I watch, of course)

    Ah, good point. I don’t do that either.

    But there’s also the thing that I have decided moods. If I wanted to give Netflix good information about my tendencies and preferences such that it could (hopefully) make better recommendations, I think it would be helpful to be able to create sub-profiles for different moods.

    In a blah-I-don’t-care mood, I’m unlikely to watch a blockbuster or a comedy. Documentaries are probably my first choice, but not ones that are too dark.
    In an intellectually curious mood, I could easily watch intelligent comedies that subvert my assumptions, but otherwise might watch the darker documentaries or documentaries about current events (whether or not they might tend to make me mad -- like the documentaries about priestly abuses) or highly technical documentaries where I need to make sure I’m paying better attention than I tend to do in a blah mood.
    There are popcorn moods when i watch comedies with no redeeming social value (for instance, Spy) and action movies with women leads.
    There’s another popcorn mood which may not be separate enough to describe well, but is more open to watching movies with men leads. That’s when I watch the marvel MCU movies, JamesBond’sNinjaSpaceRobot movies, etc. Of course, in this mood I’m almost always also open to action movies with a strong woman lead, but I’m less open to comedies (redeeming social value or not). Even if I can’t describe it, though, I’d be able to recognize when I’m in that mood and click the right icon for the right sub-profile, and that’s all I would have to do to make the system work.
    Then there’s another mood where I’m open to watching multiple-episode series with characters that i care about. Luke Cage fits here, because I actually empathize with the people in it, as does Jessica Jones (although I empathize with her less than with Malcom or Trish -- I think she’s bad ass & fun, but I don’t experience my feelings harmonizing with the character’s feelings). Frankie & Grace also goes here. As does a rewatch of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
    Then there’s the times when depression is really, really bad and I just want something on that I don’t have to pay attention to all the time lest I miss something, but I want to be distracted as much as possible. That’s when I watch shows I’ve seen multiple times before with characters that I don’t particularly empathize with. (Mainly this is because I don’t want the conflicts and setbacks in the plot to accidentally make me feel worse through my empathy with a character’s hardships.) This could be Xena (not that I don’t care about the characters, but most of the episodes are just too silly to move me that much emotionally, and when they do move me emotionally, it’s almost never negatively: the show is generally very upbeat in tone), but over the past month I’ve actually been re-watching episodes of the Clone Wars 3-d animated series.
    I also have another mood which I’m not sure how to describe, but it’s when I either want something completely new or when I tend to watch historical documentaries or intelligent analyses/documentaries on topics of human psychology, sociology, history, cultural development and the rise of civilizations/agricultures, hyper-specific political issues, etc. Maybe I could throw this one in with the “intellectually curious” mood above. Perhaps it even better fits that name, but then I would know what to call that mood. Anyway, it’s its own thing.

    The problem is that things like MCU movies and Luke Cage and Jessica Jones and Clone Wars tend to get slapped in the same category of superhero/sci-fi adventures. But they serve very different purposes for me and are appropriate to very different times/moods.

    I’m not really interested in Netflix relentlessly profiling me, but if I wanted to use the system, I can still imagine it working much better than it could possibly do now. Maybe the system would let you choose an emoji for each mood or something, and ask, “What do you feel like?” when you first reach the browse screen, with all your established mood’s emojis available to click right away. Then, when you rated a movie or show, you could also click an associated mood or two.

    I don’t really know why I’m rambling about this, but the whole system is simply intellectually interesting to me -- both the bad parts where Netflix appears to be misrepresenting content to get you to watch anything and the good parts where it seeks to honestly present the options that would make you happiest to watch.

  4. invivoMark says

    There was a delightful period of time during which Facebook’s marketing algorithms pegged me as a black person, because I got numerous advertisements for clubs, interest groups, and products marketed specifically for black people. I took no effort to correct the system’s error, so I kept getting these sorts of advertisements for several months.

  5. deepak shetty says

    What I had not realized was that they are also trying to deduce whether I am a person of color or not and if they felt that I was, they would show a different still image featuring actors of color

    I might be wrong but I would guess that this does not work (in a technical sense as you are describing. On one side would be the data they collect about you (e.g. what you watch , what you browse, what you rate, other profile attributes) and on the other side would be what promo material/pictures/trailer to show to you (with something that measures success like you watched it).
    Then you feed it to some collaborative filter or deep learning network and let it come up with what you should see to maximise the chance of success. There would be no targetting specifically of you are colored so show people of colored.
    There is however an aspect of this targeting in whoever created the promo material (who realized that a picture of a colored couple might appeal to specific subsets of people but I doubt theres a deduce the persons color involved.

  6. says

    Netflix recs are another fine example of Sturgeon’s Law — 90% of everything is crap. And yes, the other 10% is well worth wading through the crap for.

    While I’m here -- CripDyke — try Call The Midwife. It’s feminist, progressive, passes the Bechtel (sp?) Test with flying colors, and deals with social issues that are still relevant today including homosexuality and disability.

  7. polishsalami says

    This reminds me of the teens who mocked my (late 30s) mother for turning up to the cinema to see Dirty Dancing, and then were treated to a movie about abortion.

  8. says

    It’s ridiculous, but at least on Netflix I’ll watch things I want to watch so the algorithms won’t be too far off. I refuse to watch stuff out of curiosity (like conspiracy theorists or RWNJs) on YouTube because I get angry enough when something like that pokes its head up in my recommendations. They really need to have a button that says “I’m watching out of curiosity but do NOT include this in your algorithms.)

    polishsalami @7

    That brings up my favourite story of Netflix algorithms gone awry. Because I watched Obvious Child, a romcom-adjacent movie about a woman who chooses to have an abortion, they thought I might like Nicholas Cage in Left Behind.

  9. Mano Singham says

    Yeah, I don’t rate the things I watch either, so that doesn’t help Netflix much, though I think what you choose to watch says more about you than whether you liked it or not. If you like comedies, you will likely continue to watch them even after seeing a series of stinkers.

  10. Henry Gale says

    Netflix routinely changes the image you see for a video. My impression has always been they do this to make their catalog appear larger and that it gets refreshed more often.

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