Universal Studios was able to show completely different trailers for Straight Outta Compton, the biopic of rap group NWA, to different racial groups on Facebook, thanks to a little-known feature on the social network called “racial affinity targeting”.
The feature, which has been available to marketers since November 2014, categorises users in terms of their interests like many other Facebook advertising tools. But it uniquely categorises those clusters of interests in terms of related racial groups, allowing Universal to show very different versions of the Straight Outta Compton trailer to white and black audiences.
The movie studio revealed the marketing strategy in a panel at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, where both Universal and Facebook representatives discussed the feature. But the sudden attention paid to Facebook’s racial affinity targeting has left the social network scrambling to explain how it is different from simple racial profiling – something Facebook apparently does not want to be associated with.
The two trailers were created, Universal’s EVP of digital marketing Doug Neil said, because NWA’s image was very different inside and outside the black community. While African Americans know the band and recall it fondly, the “general population” (the group of people that Facebook has not identified as African American, Hispanic, or Asian American) instead knows Ice Cube as an actor, and Dr Dre as the face of Apple’s Beats brand.
So the former group were shown a trailer which focuses on the political art at the heart of NWA, while the latter were shown a very different trailer that makes the film look more like a gangster movie than a biopic.
But while Universal was happy with the ability to advertise differently to different audiences, Facebook is at pains to point out that the tools, which are currently only available to the US, don’t allow advertisers to segregate by race. Instead, the company lets advertisers pick who to advertise to based on “ethnic affinity”; bundling people who like similar racially-coded pages together, and letting advertisers sell to them.
Liking BET or Essence, or being a member of the African American Chamber of Commerce group, for instance, indicates membership of the African American affinity group, while setting the site’s language to Spanish might indicate membership of the Hispanic group.
In a tutorial for advertisers quoted by Ars Technica, Facebook says: “The diversity of the US is more than an ethnic biodiversity. These groups of people have a rich diversity of culture, which can include many things, such as beliefs, traditions, music, aesthetics, or language. The people in the US who have demonstrated affinity for the cultures of these groups make up the US Multicultural Affinity audiences.
“The Facebook multicultural targeting solution is based on affinity, not ethnicity. This provides advertisers with an opportunity to serve highly relevant ad content to affinity-based audiences.”
That final claim is repeated again and again. In a statement to Ars Technica, a Facebook spokesperson specifically addressed what it would mean to be identified as park of the African-American ethnic affinity group: “They like African-American content. But we cannot and do not say to advertisers that they are ethnically black. Facebook does not have a way for people to self-identify by race or ethnicity on the platform.”
Facebook declined to comment to the Guardian on its ethic affinity profiling. But a source close to the company said that the segments aren’t designed to identify people who are ethnically members of the groups, instead being created simply to help advertisers target adverts at people who will response well to that content.
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