Netflix Denies It Look At Demographics When Personalizing Thumbnails

Written by Ann Brown

Listen to GHOGH with Jamarlin Martin | Episode 25: Liz Burr

Jamarlin talks to digital media guru and MIT graduate Liz Burr. They talk about business prospects for podcasting, censoring Black artists and activists online, and how using the N-word got a top exec fired at Netflix.

These days everything is personalized online. Shop for a pair of Adidas sneakers online and the next time you log into Facebook you will be bombarded by sneaker ads. So has Netflix adapted this sort of personalization to target people by race for their product?

Stacia L. Brown, creator of the podcast Hope Chest, tweeted that this had happened to her in regards to a Netflix promote for Like Father.”  “Does your queue do this? Generate posters with the Black cast members on them to try to compel you to watch?” she said. “These actors had maaaaaybe a 10 cumulative minutes of screen time. 20 lines between them, tops.”

Brown, and other Black subscribers to Netflix, said they saw thumbnail image “Like Father” that featured African-American actors Leonard Ouzts and Blaire Brooks, even though the main stars of the film are two white actors — Kelsey Grammer and Kristen Bell.

But Netflix said it isn’t targeting viewers by race.

“Reports that we look at demographics when personalizing artwork are untrue,” Netflix said in a statement. “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.”


The use of algorithms has gotten other tech companies, such as YouTube and Facebook, in hot water. “They’ve drawn outcry for serving increasingly extremist videos and news to users, which critics say has helped radicalize and divide society. Even dating app algorithms have come under fire for reinforcing racial biases,” Bloomberg reported.

If Netflix is indeed targeting viewers by race, it would be bad news for the service as Netflix is still reeling for other racists incidents. Back in June,  Netflix fired its chief communications officer for making racially insensitive remarks at work. In response the company hired a new head of diversity, and earlier this year it debuted its “Strong Black Lead” effort. This effort focuses on projects by Black creators and talent such as Ava DuVernay, Shonda Rhimes, and Lena Waithe.

TheWrap noted that in December 2017, Netflix explained in a Medium post how the artwork associated with each title is influenced by user history.

“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,” the blog post read. “Someone who has watched many romantic movies may be interested in Good Will Hunting if we show the artwork containing Matt Damon and Minnie Driver, whereas, a member who has watched many comedies might be drawn to the movie if we use the artwork containing Robin Williams, a well-known comedian.”