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Universal gets heat for racially targeting Straight Outta Compton ads

Every marketer knows to tailor your ads to an audience, but Universal’s methods are being questioned. Pay attention so you know the rules of the road.

Wait, aren’t ads *supposed* to be targeted?

Targeted advertising is a good thing, right? You’re sending a message to your customer that is tailored to their specific interests, allowing you to attune different marketing strategies to different demographics.

But if your targeted advertising presents different information to customers of different races, you’ll look a lot less credible and a lot more, well, racist.

Universal assumes white people know Dre

Universal Studios is currently in the hot seat, dealing with the backlash from its racially targeted advertising of the film Straight Outta Compton. The film, which is named after the title of the first studio album of the hip-hop group. N.W.A., chronicles the rise of the rappers from their Compton roots to international fame.

However, the studio chose to make advertisements, targeted towards white Facebook users, that don’t even mention N.W.A. Instead, ads for whites features Ice Cube and Dr. Dre, because Universal assumes that white people are more familiar with these faces than they are with N.W.A.

SXSW panel kicks up dirt

The discrepancy was revealed by Universal digital marketing executive, Doug Neil, who was speaking about targeted marketing at a South by Southwest panel. He described how Universal used Facebook’s analytic tools to create targeted marketing. While Facebook doesn’t allow advertisers to segregate content based on race, data on habits, likes, and interests can be used to create categories that mostly lump folks together racially.

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So while Universal was patting itself on the back for its crafty targeted marketing, audience members’ responses ranged from eye rolls to outrage.

But not all accused Universal of wrongdoing

Black news and commentary site, The Root, was dismayed at the racial stereotyping behind Universal’s marketing.

They said, “let’s not act like all black people know or like N.W.A.” and commented that “they should’ve presented the fake trailers to the Academy members so the movie could have received more Oscar nominations.” The Academy’s snub of Straight Outta Compton inspired the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite.

Another Twitter user posted, “Wut? Facebook showed whites and blacks diff versions of ads, calls it a ‘victory’ for race-specific advertising.”

The take away lesson here is that targeted advertising, when based on racial stereotypes, can and will backfire.

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Ellen Vessels, a Staff Writer at The American Genius, is respected for their wide range of work, with a focus on generational marketing and business trends. Ellen is also a performance artist when not writing, and has a passion for sustainability, social justice, and the arts.



  1. Tim

    March 22, 2016 at 8:02 am

    You have GOT to be kidding me. Not only is this manufactured outrage, I am embarrassed to find such a ridiculous article on AmericanGenius. Are things so amazing in America that people have time to whine about, and protest how a company chooses to spend its advertising dollars? Sorry, but there are REAL probelms in this world, people dying, violence, etc. But if you feel whining about how a company targets its advertising is a worthy cause to get behind, then you’ve lost all credibility with me, and a lot of people. I’m unfollowing and spending my time on sites that cover real issues, instead of this manufactured nonsense.

    • Lani Rosales

      March 23, 2016 at 10:51 am

      Tim, you’re right, there are MUCH more important issues than this, but while we were at SXSW, this was a huge topic of conversation, especially paired with the attendee who was asked to remove her hijab before entering. Combine that with the fact that Facebook doesn’t even have an option to market based on race, and it’s interesting.

      World changing? You’re right, it’s not. Worth of note to business leaders looking to tweak their marketing? Sure is!

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