in Digital Rights

Facebook Enables Marketing to a Strictly White Only Audience

Segregated cinema entrance

I should be more precise: Facebook enables marketing to a strictly ‘white affinity’ only adience.

Doug Neil of Universal Pictures and Facebook’s Jim Underwood presented Big Box Office: Marketing Films in a Mobile World at SxSW a few weeks back. They promised the audience that they would get to hear about “the best approaches for mobile marketing: how a monster hit like Jurassic World benefited from mobile-friendly content delivered to a mass audience while genre films benefit from insights into audience segments ranging from multi-cultural to multi-generational.”

In the session Neil explained how the movie Straight Outta Compton was an unexpected breakout hit. According to Business Insider he credited segmenting the audience into three parts: the “general population” (meaning non-African-American and non-Hispanic), African-Americans and Hispanics:

Neil credited part of this to a specialized Facebook marketing effort led by Universal’s “multicultural team” in conjunction with its Facebook team. They created tailored trailers for different segments of the population.

Why? The “general population” (non-African American, non-Hispanic) wasn’t familiar with N.W.A., or with the musical catalog of Ice Cube and Dr. Dre, according to Neil. They connected to Ice Cube as an actor and Dr. Dre as the face of Beats, he said. The trailer marketed to them on Facebook had no mention of N.W.A., but sold the movie as a story of the rise of Ice Cube and Dr. Dre.

The trailer marketed to African Americans was completely different. Universal assumed this segment of the population had a baseline familiarity with N.W.A. “They put Compton on the map,” Neil said. This trailer opens with the word N.W.A. and continues to lean on it heavily throughout.

As to the trailer produced for the Hispanic market, it was a shorter spot that included flashing quotes in Spanish.

Let’s sidestep the fact that Hollywood still seems to think that “black” movies have a hard time being successful. And let’s ignore how tone-deaf these two gentlemen are when it comes to the current situation around race in Hollywood (think #OscarsSoWhite or the upsetting story of Nina Simone’s botched biopic). Instead, let’s look at what this really is:

Racial profiling enabled by Facebook’s data lust

Facebook was quick to explain that they are not identifying their audience as being black. Instead they are merely assessing your affinity with black culture, or as they would call it: whether you “like African-American content”. They promise they won’t make that assessment on the basis of your photos (although surely their research lab must be working on some form of “fracial recognition” system), your name or census data. Instead they’ll look at what you ‘like’ and read online. In simple Facebook-algorithmic terms: if you watch BET and post #BlackLivesMatter links, then we can tell our advertiser you probably know N.W.A. well and don’t need to see the whitewashed trailer.

Some people can’t see what is wrong with a bit of personalisation and are happy that this movie has managed to find a big audience. But they are missing the bigger picture.

Facebook has this type of affinity data on most of its close to 1.6 billion(!) monthly active users. We now have a commercial company building a massive world-scale database that enables anybody with access to that data to slice up the population in whatever way they might find convenient.

  • Looking for strictly white patronage for your Airbnb? Facebook can help you with that.
  • Only want millionaires on your dating site? Show some ads to Facebook users from the “rich affinity” group.
  • Desperate to sell your cancer medication? Facebook can get you a set of people who have ‘liked’ cancer.
  • Need a list of all the people with Kurdish affinity? Facebook is ready for you!
  • Jews? Muslims? Facebook can now personalise their experience too…

After initially enabling ‘Web 2.0’, Facebook is now enabling segregation 2.0. I mean, what could go wrong?