Netflix is racist and sexist, but does anyone care?

I was recently at my girlfriend’s house trying to find a movie for us to watch when I noticed something odd. The movie artwork was different on her Netflix account than it was on mine. While this isn’t really new or interesting, it did raise some questions in my mind. At first, I assumed Netflix was just mixing up the artwork to create the illusion of fresh inventory, so I logged in on my computer and opened up Netflix to see if mine had changed as well. It had not. I then began searching for movies on both her account and mine and started to notice a trend. The artwork projected when she was logged into her account featured significantly more women on its movie artwork than mine did for the same movies. Below is an example of the different artwork that might be seen for Step It Up depending on your gender. It gets worse…

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At first, I didn’t really think twice about this. Of course, Netflix does this, they are simply doing their best to tailor their inventory to appeal to each of their subscribers. Since they have limited inventory, it’s in their best interest to make everyone interested in the content they have. Solid business move. But then I began thinking about this in the context of today’s world of personal information breaches and the concept began to not sit well….and so I began to research my findings and found I was not alone. It turns out this has been a well-documented issue across the country and Netflix has done such a terrific job with the PR that no one really seemed to grasp ahold of the issue. Netflix is using its subscription base to A/B test images to see what appeals to who and while I am reasonably comfortable with the data I choose to give Facebook and Google, I am not super comfortable with this concept. Netflix now knows what I am most visually drawn to and most likely to choose simply because I use Netflix. While my days of passively scanning facebook are over, I now can’t even watch a movie with someone collecting data on my habits. It gets worse. Below are two artworks Netflix uses to promote Like Father depending on the race of its users. The show stars Kristen Bell and Kelsey Grammer however black users might see the artwork featured on the right even though neither of those cast members plays a significant role. Is this ok?

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Different things appeal to different people, that’s one of the facts of life that keep it so interesting and makes having friends of different races and genders so amazing. However, when the same thing appeals to different people because of intentional and continuous packaging, I begin to get uncomfortable. To me, this is an assault on the fabric of life. It is an attempt to take personal preferences out of the equation and make everyone like the same thing. I like that each person has their own unique tastes and preferences in movies, music, and food and I would like to keep it that way.

 

 

 

12 comments

  1. This really interesting to me, especially considering that Netflix is turning out so much original content. Is it really necessary to mislead people into watching a movie by changing the cover art? Also the second you watch the trailer, or start one of these movies you would quickly learn who the actual main characters are. However, I get that maybe they think based on who is shown, might bias your opinion on the movie. Netflix wants more people to watch more things, plain and simple.

  2. Very interesting post. I knew that Netflix altered the images seen on the front of some of their content depending on the user, but I never thought of it in light of race and gender. Personally, I guess if Netflix is using my data of shows I have watched previously to figure out what type of characters I like best and push those to me, I would be ok with that. But I also might be kept from seeing shows where the main characters don’t reflect who I identify with racially or culturally. This I think is an issue, especially in today’s political and social climate. Only projecting certain images at certain people may lead to (at some small level) an increased separation between certain social groups. Netflix must be careful not to go too far with this personalization, or I am sure they will receive major backlash.

  3. This is something that I would have never noticed if I hadn’t read this blog post! I knew that Netflix compiled a ton of data on users to help select content that each user would enjoying watching, but I didn’t not now it went this far. I am with you, I am not 100% comfortable with the way in which they segment out gender and race, to me this is crossing the cool line into bias land. Netflix is also a platform that can be shared amongst users so I would be interested what exactly the company takes into consideration in order to make determinations. They say don’t judge a book by it’s cover, but sounds like Netflix wants to you judge.

  4. I’ve always noticed that the cover photos would change from time to time on my Netflix account, but it’s really shocking to me that this may be the reason why! Thanks for doing the research and shedding light on this. I definitely think its an alienating move on Netflix’s end to advertise its content with cover photos that they *assume* would appeal to certain individuals. I think there definitely is a better way to tailor their inventory to their subscribers, such as improving on its recommendation list (“Because you watched: ______”) and utilizing one’s watch history to find similar shows or genres that would catch their attention.

  5. Admittedly I have never paid too much attention to the way that the pictures showed up differently, but I have noticed it. I think it was probably harder to look into why and who might be shown different images for the movie/show previews because my girlfriend and I share the same account, so watching it in the living room we generally see the same thing. I think this idea of A/B testing is certainly interesting considering it’s data that the company can use to engage with their target audience. But when you think about this, it’s also creepy and in a way it’s violating so I get your whole point of not even being to watch a movie without having data collected on personal preferences. I also am not a huge fan of the suggestions Netflix makes just because of certain movies or shows I’ve watched in the past. I think one thing they haven’t figured out is providing suggestions based on your mood. Imagine having the option to select what type of mood you’re in and having a new set of suggested films that you can choose from.

  6. I watched Set It Up at one point and then almost watched it again when the cover photo changed, thinking it was a completely different movie. I’ve never noticed the difference when using my boyfriend’s Netflix but will definitely begin paying attention now. This definitely violates the creepy/cool line we discuss because it is completely out of Netflix’s brand proposition to tailor direct marketing towards certain races or genders. The second photoset is shocking and shouldn’t make a difference when shown to any variety of users. I agree that I am not comfortable with Netflix holding this kind of data over my head when I am using their platform for entertainment and as a way to unwind. Like Deb said, I would be fine with them collecting recommendation data to improve my viewing experience but basing my options off of things I’ve clicked on before crosses a line.

  7. Wow, I had no idea that Netflix does this. I always knew that one of the reasons for Netflix’s success was how they use data to make suggestions and keep users watching content, but I had no idea that this data analysis led to changes in how they display their content. The more I think about it, the less I am surprised though because if they have hard data on the kinds of characters that get people watching, I can see why they would be eager to use every data point possible to keep users loyal. However, as Olivia mentioned above, I think it’s important to notice that this means we might be watching the same characters over and over again. Not only could this get boring, but it could also have effects on the stories and “characters” that we open ourselves up to in real life

  8. I have to admit I have noticed this before, however I hadn’t seen the ‘Like Father’ one till now. It’s crazy how vastly different the artwork between those two pictures. In fact, I would say that it kinda verges on the edge of false advertising when you take into account how minor the characters are. That being said I’m actually not sure how I feel about this because tonnes of studies and data will show that time and time again we will choose things more similar to what we know. For example in music or podcasts men are more likely to listen to songs sung by men or podcasts hosted by men whereas women will listen to either. It’s for that reason that a developer at Spotify told me they have to ensure that their algorithms are combatting our own inherent bias when they’re coming up with discover weekly playlists etc. Maybe this is just Netflix’s way of trying to smooth out our own racism and sexism. The part that doesn’t sit well with me is when it begins to reinforce our biases. It’s kind of a chicken and egg thing – will exposing us to more racially diverse movies (even if we got there through ‘white’ artwork decrease our bias or will exposing us said ‘white’ only art work perpetuate the biases that already exist?

  9. First off, I had no clue Netflix was doing this and I’ve never noticed differences between my friends and I’s artwork. Admittedly I have a relatively homogenous group of friends, so this may not be too surprising. I don’t know how I feel about this, but I tend to take less of a negative view of the practice. While it seems misleading to present different artworks for the same film, It doesn’t seem ethically wrong or “racist/sexist” but more of a personalized targeting campaign. We give companies data on our preferences every day and they keep track of this data to personalize experiences that inevitably is aimed at getting us to consume a product. A/B testing is used in all sorts of software, and it’s a useful tool to determine what works best for what users. People seem most likely to connect to individuals similar to them by nature, so this just seems like a smart move on the side of Netflix. While I’m sure there are larger social/psychological implications that I’m not aware of at the moment, I don’t necessarily see this as that harmful. The real message of a movie is delivered in it’s content, not just the artwork. If they want to change a picture to increase my likelihood to watch it, I guess I’m not that upset about it. Great post, I really enjoyed the topic!

  10. Very interesting post. I appreciate the investigative research into the issue of Netflix. I have never noticed this, but also never had the opportunity to compare my Netflix vs. my friends. I agree with Olivia’s point concerning Netflix fixing the shows I see depending on my identity. I would hope this is not the case. Netflix must be careful to avoid the distancing of groups with this trend.

  11. As someone whose interested in working at a company like Netflix I was very interested in your post. I have noticed in the past that what my parents see versus what I see on a home screen is different, but I think I usually only really clocked the difference in titles and genres. Assuming that if the image was different it was just changing across all accounts so I like that you investigated this on multiple accounts and devices!
    Personally, I do have a different take- in that I think it’s cool, creative, and shows a level of interest in customers that they customize each blocking to most appeal to my senses. That said I am also the type of person who generally does not mind sharing my data as I feel in general it is meant to help make life easier so I may be biased.

  12. I think the predictive aspect was initially innocent, but has developed into a form of profiling. When analytics was giving us suggestions on shows and movies, it was a fantastic service, but now they are manipulating the content they create. For other movies, you aren’t able to cherrypick specific characters, because there are specific movie posters. The profiling aspect reminds me of Professor Kane’s anecdote where Google thought he was a 60 year old woman. I recently tweeted an article about netflix users that highlighted the fact that 14% of Netflix users use a subscription of a friend or family member outside of his or her household. I would be interested to see how Netflix adjusts their algorithms.

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