It's being touted as a marketing win, but something feels wrong here. At a SXSW panel, Universal Picture's executive vice president of digital marketing, Doug Neil, and Facebook entertainment head Jim Underwood dished about the customized racial marketing plan for the roll-out of the 2015 movie Straight Outta Compton. Apparently, black, white, and Hispanic users were served racially tailored trailers.
Universal was concerned that the "general population" (read: non-African Americans, non-Hispanics) weren't familiar with N.W.A., one of the most famous rap groups of all time, or the musical works of Dr. Dre or Ice Cube, but instead recognized them, respectively, as the face of Beats and "that dude from Ride Along." The trailer distributed to those Facebook users made little mention of N.W.A. and instead packaged the story as the rise of Dre and Cube.
The white trailer.
The African American cut, on the other hand, assuming familiarity among those users, presented itself as the story of N.W.A. and made explicit their ties to Compton. The clip for the Hispanic market was shorter and included on-screen quotes written in Spanish.
Neil called the campaign a complete success and described it as an integral part of the film's breakout status, grossing over $160 million at U.S. box offices. But is that sort of marketing ethical?
The black trailer.
Facebook is a powerful tool for marketers because it can target population segments with unprecedented specificity. But, it's not as if all black people know or love gangsta rap (nor is that all white people would be oblivious to it). Profiling is part of marketing, but the stereotypes implied here suggest a regressive understanding of race. And based on what's been billed as a $160-million W, this likely won't be the last time our profiles profile us.
Facebook issued a statement to Consequence of Sound in response to Neil and Underwood's comments: “Several news outlets have stated that Facebook allows advertisers to target ads based on race. That is not accurate. Facebook does not have a capability for people to self-identify by race or ethnicity on the platform. As part of its advertising offering, brands can target ads on Facebook to people based on how they might respond to content. The affinity segments are created, in a privacy-safe way, using signals such as different languages, likes, and group membership on the platform."
Ars Technica points out that Facebook's targetable "Affinity Audiences" are listed as non-multicultural, African American, Asian American, and Hispanic. Facebook's statement is correct: the service never asks users to identify their race. Instead, it's been guessing.