Whitewashed Marketing Campaign Or Just Targeted Ads?
Various outlets are reporting that the marketing team behind Straight Outta Compton, one of 2015's biggest hits, cut different versions of its trailers for white audiences. Universal teamed with Facebook to present different trailers to different audiences based on various factors that approximated the user's race. While reactions are predictably all over, does this actually matter? Should we care that the marketing arm of a major studio thought they would find more success this way? I am pretty solidly in the 'No' camp, but let's discuss.
The basic difference between the trailers is that White audiences were presented a narrative that focused more on the business exploits of Dr. Dre and Ice Cube, while other audiences received more of the Rap/NWA narrative. No facts were changed. Universal just emphasized the facts they thought would make each audience more likely to see the film.
Hollywood has made a number of different missteps in recent years. We have had white actors playing people of color (see Angelina Jolie, Ben Affleck, Johnny Depp and too many others to list). We have had a severe under-representation of actors of color--both at the Oscars and in the films themselves. We have even recently seen controversy generated by a lighter actress darkening her skin for a role. Even before thinking about the injustices of generations past, it suffices to say that race is an issue for Hollywood. It is that backdrop that makes many people sensitive to this Straight Outta Compton news.
Hollywood's history, however, is exactly why this news should not be frowned upon. If anything, we should embrace that this signals a shift for the industry. 25 years ago, this film may not have been produced with the scale and quality that made it the success it was. Back then, Black people's stories often ended up being niche films marketed to only black audiences, or represented the culture in a mocking or inauthentic fashion. Straight Outta Compton is not only primarily about Black people, but also about Hip-Hop, one of the most intensely Black elements of pop culture. To have a story like this be commercially and critically successful is a feat.
This matters because Hollywood studios, like any other business, exist to make money. You could argue (and I have) that they have certain responsibilities because of their role in our society. But you must also acknowledge that in order to get these films made, the bottom line has to be there. Studios have no responsibility to be on a social mission at all costs. If we want these stories to be told, bringing diverse audiences in to see them is the best way to keep that pipeline open.
This news actually says much more about us as an audience than it does Universal as a studio, but it doesn't say anything surprising about either. Studios want as many people to see their movies as possible. Makes sense. People of different races can view the same information, facts or events differently. This checks out too. There are racial trends in everything from politics to sports and even to the very music that guides this film along.
White people seeing a trailer that plays up the business aspects of a story to appeal to them doesn't seem all that different from running ads on Lifetime that focus on the love story in an action film. Does anyone complain when love story elements are left out of the ads shown on ESPN? The only difference is that here we are talking about race and people feel as though they have to be particularly sensitive on the subject, which may be true, but nothing in these trailers is insensitive to our racial reality. It does not marginalize these stories to market particular elements and if the viewer ends up seeing the film, they are taking in the same fully-formed picture as everyone else.
In the end, I want more than anything for people of all stripes to see stories that reflect their world up on the big screen. Representation can fundamentally change your sense of self-worth and thus have all sorts of positive effects on society. If someone somewhere has to receive a custom trailer to make all of this possible, I think we will all survive.
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