Netflix often touts is personalized recommendations as one feature that differentiates the streaming service from traditional media. But one of the subtle tools it uses to deliver suggestions — carefully selected artwork or images, designed to entice the user to watch a movie or TV series based on past viewing — became the focus of online criticism.
Stacia L Brown, a writer and creator of the podcast Hope Chest, took issue with an approach she found manipulative — some even raised the prospect of racial profiling. Brown, who is African American, noted that Netflix showed her an image featured Leonard Ouzts and Blaire Brooks, black actors with relatively minor roles in the film Like Father, a comedy staring white actors Kristen Bell and Kelsey Grammer.
“It’s weird to try to pass a film off as having a Black principal cast (by creating a movie poster-like as featuring just the Black people) when it’s a white movie. A very white movie. I’d already watched this one last month so I knew it was a marketing trick. Still,” Brown wrote.
Brown noted on Twitter that this was not an isolated incident, sharing other examples of promotional images used to entice her to watch Love Actually, Set it Up and The Good Cop, all of which featured black actors.
Others weighed in on Twitter, saying they felt this sort of approach crossed the line into “creepy” or simply misleading.
Netflix issued a statement saying it doesn’t engage in racial or demographic targeting. It simply doesn’t collect this sort of information about its subscribers.
“We don’t ask members for their race, gender or ethnicity so we cannot use this information to personalize their individual Netflix experience,” a Netflix spokesperson told Deadline. “The only information we use is a member’s viewing history.”
The thumbnails it uses to promote viewing of a new movie or TV show is based entirely on the shows the individual subscriber watches, Netflix said.
Netflix began using image personalization as another form recommendation for a while, writing in a Medium post last December that describes how selecting the right image can be a powerful lure for enticing subscribers to try a show that Netflix’s algorithms suggest you’ll like.
“If the artwork representing a title captures something compelling to you, then it acts as a gateway into that title and gives you some visual “evidence” for why the title might be good for you,” wrote Ashok Chandrashekar. “The artwork may highlight an actor that you recognize, capture an exciting moment like a car chase, or contain a dramatic scene that conveys the essence of a movie or TV show. If we present that perfect image on your homepage (and as they say: an image is worth a thousand words), then maybe, just maybe, you will give it a try. This is yet another way Netflix differs from traditional media offerings: we don’t have one product but over a 100 million different products with one for each of our members with personalized recommendations and personalized visuals.”
Netflix used the example of how it would depict the movie Good Will Hunting to different subscribers, displaying artwork containing Matt Damon and Minnie Driver to someone who has watched many romantic movies, but featuring comedian Robin Williams for those who are drawn to comedies.
In an era of seemingly endless data breaches, not everyone was comfortable with this sort of personalized marketing.