Netflix: we don’t advertise shows on a racial basis
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Netflix: we don’t advertise shows on a racial basis

Streaming Video on Demand (SVOD) market leader Netflix has responded to criticisms that it advertises shows to users based on their race. Some users claimed that Netflix shows thumbnail images that are racially targeted: for instance, a black Netflix subscriber may see a thumbnail image for a recommended show that features black secondary actors. Even if those actors only have a sliver of screen time, and even if white or Asian users saw different thumbnails. Netflix has denied the charge.

Netflix’s share price has appreciated by 74% so far this year

netflix graph 251018

Source: Yahoo Finance

Stacia L. Brown, the mind behind the Hope Chest podcast, which deals with a range of issues, from politics to raising a black daughter in modern America, noticed this effect with Netflix original film ‘Like Father’. The picture stars two white actors, Kelsey Grammer and Kristen Bell, as an estranged father and daughter. However, it also features actors of other races.

In this case, Brown was shown an image of two black actors who had just minutes of screen time between them. On Twitter, she wrote: “Other Black @netflix users: does your queue do this? Generate posters with the Black cast members on them to try to compel you to watch? This film stars Kristen Bell/Kelsey Grammer and these actors had maaaaybe a 10 cumulative minutes of screen time. 20 lines between them, tops.”

Netflix makes no secret of the fact that its incredibly effective recommendations algorithm generates multiple thumbnails, and that users who decided not to watch a recommendation may find the same film recommended with a different thumbnail in the near future. The system is trying to discover which images will motivate subscribers to take a chance on a new movie or TV show. And crucially, it couldn’t target users in the way Brown describes even if it wanted to. In a statement, the company said:

“Reports that we look at demographics when personalizing artwork are untrue. 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 other words, Netflix shows users images that their history suggests will motivate them to watch. The algorithm might not have known that Brown was black – but it knew she liked to watch shows and movies featuring black actors. That algorithm may need adjusting if Netflix wants to avoid further problems – but there’s no denying that it’s effective. After all, Brown did watch Like Father.

Dominion holds Netflix in its Global Trends Ecommerce Fund.

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