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Why did Universal 'white-wash' trailers for 'Straight Outta Compton'?

When the biopic of rap group N.W.A came out last summer, the distributor created separate trailers for the film for white, African-American, and Latino audiences to view on Facebook, a Universal executive said this week. While it's controversial, the technique isn't unusual.

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    F. Gary Gray, left, and O'Shea Jackson Jr., right, winners of the award for outstanding motion picture for “Straight Outta Compton” pose in the press room with Anthony Anderson, center, winner of the award for outstanding actor in a comedy series for “black-ish” at the 47th NAACP Image Awards at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium on Friday, Feb. 5, 2016, in Pasadena, Calif. On Wednesday, a Universal Pictures marketing executive revealed that the studio created different versions of the film's trailer for viewers of different races.
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As Universal Pictures geared up for the release of “Straight Outta Compton,” a biopic about the pioneering rap group N.W.A., last summer, it faced a dilemma – how would the studio market the movie to audiences that weren’t familiar with the group?

Its solution, revealed on Wednesday by Doug Neil, Universal’s executive vice president of marketing, was to create separate versions of the film’s trailer, which were then targeted individually to white, black, and Latino users on Facebook, Business Insider reports.

At a panel at the South by Southwest conference, Mr. Neil said that Universal’s “multicultural team” of marketers created separate trailers for different audiences, with the trailer for the “general population” (or viewers who are not African-American or Latino) focusing primarily on the rise of Ice Cube and Dr. Dre as business moguls.

That’s because this group connected with Ice Cube as an actor and Dr. Dre as the face of the Beats headphone brand, not as musicians, he said.

Coming in the midst of the #OscarsSoWhite campaign sparked in part by this year’s Academy Awards featuring an all-white slate of nominees for top awards for the second year in a row, revelations of this strategy of “racial marketing” drew controversy.

“It's an excuse that would only be plausible if we weren't talking about one of the biggest rap groups in history, who are being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (one of the whitest institutions in music) next month — or the hugely successful solo careers of both Dre and Cube,” wrote Vulture’s Dee Lockett.

The identification of Dr. Dre – who is often credited as single-handedly defining the sound of West Coast rap in his work as a producer – mainly with Beats is also striking.

When the company became part of Apple in 2014, a Wall Street Journal profile described him as a “perfectionist,” and compared him with Apple co-founder Steve Jobs. But he declined to be interviewed, while a New York Times story focused almost exclusively on his business partner, the music mogul Jimmy Iovine, who appears briefly in “Straight Outta Compton.”

But in the wake of the release of the film and his album “Compton,” his first since 1999, he’s spoken frequently about the new album and the film’s portrayal of N.W.A.’s rise.

The trailer Universal targeted at African-Americans was quite different. Universal assumed this segment of the population was familiar with N.W.A., and created a trailer that opens with the word “N.W.A.” and uses it throughout the trailer, according to Neil.

“They put Compton on the map,” he said, echoing a phrase members of the group had used in their lyrics.

The trailer produced for Hispanic viewers was shorter and included flashing quotes in Spanish.

Because Facebook doesn’t ask users to self-identify by race, the Universal marketers used the site’s tools to define who would see each version of the trailer using so-called “affinity groups.” To do this, advertisers analyze what people post in order to determine their ethnicity.

For example, according to the site Search Engine Watch, this could include creating a search string such as “ ‘am [ethnicity],’ ‘proud [ethnicity],’ ‘[ethnicity] pride,’ ‘[ethnicity] American].’ ”

Recutting trailers to target specific audiences also doesn’t appear to be unusual. The 2011 film “The Adjustment Bureau,” which combined aspects of a thriller and a romance, was marketed using separate trailers aimed at women and at men, write Al Lieberman and Patricia Esgate in their 2011 book "The Definitive Guide to Entertainment Marketing."

“The trailers were accurate in their use of footage from the film but simply focused on the action and drama for the male audience and made the romantic scenes more prominent and expansive for the female audience,” they write. “Neither audience was disappointed because both were satisfied by the story, content, and elements each was seeking."

The trailers were “a great marketing success,” they say.

Neil, the Universal executive, described “Straight Outta Compton”, which grossed more than $160 million in the US, as a “breakout hit,” which had so-called crossover appeal beyond African-American audiences. He said the marketing technique was highly successful.

At this year’s Oscars, host Chris Rock focused particularly on the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, at one point turning the idea of a “crossover hit” on its head with a sketch – similar to one he had done in a previous stint as host – that featured interviews with moviegoers outside a theater in Compton.

In it, he asks them if they’ve seen the nominees for Best Picture. While nearly all had seen “Straight Outta Compton” – which was snubbed – other movies provoked surprise.

“How about 'Bridge of Spies?' " Rock asked one woman.

“Where are you getting these movies from?” she said, laughing. “You’re messing with me, you’re making up some.”

“No, these are real movies!” he responded.

“No, it’s not,” she said, gesturing to the theater. “I watch movies, I come to the movies all the time.”

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