You know how sometimes when you’re watching Netflix the artwork for a certain TV show or movie might change, perhaps based on your tastes? For example, I’m pretty sure Netflix knows I gravitate towards episodes with strong Joan storylines, because a photo of Christina Hendricks as Joan is always the lead image for Mad Men on Netflix. It’s also why some Gilmore Girls fans might see Jess as the lead image for the show on Netflix (probably because they’re TEAM JESS?) But now viewers are accusing the streaming service of changing artwork for movies and TV shows to make them seem more diverse than they really are.
Netflix has been pretty open about how they personalize content on the service. In a Medium post they wrote last year, Netflix explained one of the ways they get people to watch titles:
One avenue to address this challenge is to consider the artwork or imagery we use to portray the titles. If the artwork representing a title captures something compelling to you, then it acts as a gateway into that title and gives you some visual “evidence” for why the title might be good for you. 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. If we present that perfect image on your homepage (and as they say: an image is worth a thousand words), then maybe, just maybe, you will give it a try.
That’s all good if not creepy, until of course it misleads viewers about what the movie or TV show is really about. Like, for example, misleading viewers to think a movie stars black people when it’s actually a vehicle for white stars! The Guardian picked up on people Twitter complaining about the personalization after Twitter user Stacia L. Brown wrote about a Kristen Bell movie called Like Father which showed a photo of black actors on her Netflix account, even though they got very little screen-time. Another user complained that Set It Off showed a photo of Lucy Liu and Taye Diggs rather than the poster with the white leads.
Netflix tells the Guardian that they don’t personalize artwork based on a user’s “race, gender or ethnicity” because they don’t ask for it, but you could assume given Netflix’s algorithm that the service picks up not just on actors you might like, but the fact that you might gravitate towards content starring people of color. The problem is that depending on the movie the artwork could just be downright inaccurate; why even have artwork available to make a movie look like a black film when it’s blatantly white?
Update, 3:30 P.M.: A representative for Netflix sent a statement to Jezebel to further emphasize that the company does not look at demographics to personalize thumbnails on the service:
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 terms of thumbnails, these do differ and regularly change. This is to ensure that the images we show people are useful in deciding which shows to watch.