The popular television shows “Empire” and “How to Get Away With Murder”, as well as the blockbuster hit film “Black Panther”, have proven that content featuring a diverse cast can be hugely successful among mainstream audiences.
However, most movies and television shows are created and marketed along racial and ethnic lines, creating a divide in the content that audiences view. As the demand for Hollywood to become more diverse grows stronger, it’s worth considering why this racial split in movie marketing and television happens, and how it can be reversed.
Assistant Professor of Advertising and Public Relations Morgan Ellithorpe and her colleagues at the Annenberg School for Communication investigated this reality by surveying over 2,000 adolescents — a significant portion of the target market for advertisers of films and television. They wanted to see if the teens would be able to distinguish between mainstream and black-oriented content, as well as their exposure to each type.
“Adolescents are important to study because the attitudes and behaviors they develop in this time period are likely to continue into adulthood,” said Ellithorpe. “The things we shape in this age group have long-term ramifications both for the individual and for society. If we can encourage positive exposure to minority groups in media that leads to positive attitude change in adolescence, then we will hopefully see an effect on long-term prejudice.”
Analyzing Adolescents’ Awareness of Racially-Targeted Films
Ellithorpe has studied disparities and inequalities in media representation, as well as media effects on health and wellbeing, for several years. In her current research, she hopes to expand on some of the findings from her previous studies that revealed there are racial and ethnic differences in media consumption among adolescents.
“I’m interested in differences in how minority and marginalized groups are portrayed in media, and how that influences both the members of those groups and the members of the majority,” said Ellithorpe. “I’m also interested in how media affects health among majority and minority groups — there are already a number of health topics where minority groups are disadvantaged and media can exacerbate that issue.”
Presently, Ellithorpe is investigating why there are differences in the kinds of content that adolescents watch depending on their race. The team hypothesized that one possible reason is that marketers use a racial targeting strategy.
In the study, participants were asked about their exposure to movies that premiered in 2014 and 2015. The researchers designated several films as black-oriented content based on the diversity in casting and subject matter, choosing racially-targeted films such as “About Last Night”, “Fruitvale Station”, “Get Hard” and “Ride Along”, as well as mainstream movies such as “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2”.
The adolescents were asked if the films were targeted to mostly black audiences or all audiences. They also had the option to indicate that they hadn’t heard of the movie.
“We wanted to know whether race and identity impacted how the films were perceived in terms of their target audience — and it appears that black adolescents with strong identity are most likely to see black-oriented films as targeted to black audiences,” said Ellithorpe. “Then, we wanted to know whether these perceptions were associated with likelihood of seeing the film.”
Using the analysis technique called “item response theory”, the researchers measured how adolescents tended to classify the films. Item response theory takes ‘yes’ and ‘no’ responses and determines how easily people can say ‘yes’ about each item. In their study, the items were films, and a ‘yes’ response meant that the participant indicated a film was targeted to mostly black audiences, while a ‘no’ response meant the participant said a film was targeted to mainstream audiences.
“Quantitative analyses like item response theory can help us take complex issues and simplify them into numbers that can be compared,” said Ellithorpe. “We do lose richness of information with techniques like this, but it can be valuable to know, for example, how people categorize films on average.”
White Adolescents Are Less Perceptive of Racial Targeting
Ellithorpe and her colleagues found that black adolescents identified a clear distinction between black-targeted films and mainstream films and were much more likely to say that a black-oriented film was racially targeted. This ability to analyze the market segmentation by race only grew stronger in participants with more developed ethnic identities.
“For black adolescents, believing a movie was targeted to black audiences increased their likelihood of seeing that movie,” said Ellithorpe. “Perceptions of targeting did not influence white adolescents’ exposure, indicating that they will potentially watch a film even if they think it’s targeted more narrowly. Thus white adolescents are less likely to perceive black-oriented movies as specifically targeting minority audiences, but even if they do perceive that they are still willing to see the movie. The end result is more interest in black-oriented movies from both groups.”
Although white participants were less likely to perceive black-oriented films as narrowly segmented, they were also less likely to have seen the movies in the sample. One of the ways in which this happens is through the promotional techniques advertisers use in movie theatres. Audiences see advertisements for upcoming films that are similar to the one they are currently watching.
“That’s also likely the case with black-oriented films,” said Ellithorpe. “They’re advertised in previews of other black-oriented films, so it becomes a cycle where audiences who aren’t seeing those films aren’t being exposed to the previews and [therefore], won’t see the films. The more broadly those ads are sent around, the more likely that that cycle will be broken.”
According to Ellithorpe, the findings may suggest there is an untapped market to create diverse content for everyone. Perhaps marketing methods, rather than audience taste and preferences, are causing the cycle to continue and preventing the wide-scale success of diverse content.
A Call for an Increase in Content Diversity
The team of researchers believe their findings make a case for marketers and content producers to increase the diversity in films by marketing them more broadly. The success of “Black Panther” points to the fact that making diverse films is no longer an economic risk, as the movie’s revenue broke records, grossing $202 million in its opening weekend.
However, Ellithorpe and her team warn against trying to create more diverse content for the wrong reasons.
“[Content] shouldn’t be diverse for diversity’s sake, like with the tokenism and stereotypical ‘representation’ of the past that depicts minority characters in the way that white audiences want to see them depicted,” said Ellithorpe. “Instead, if diverse content is to be increased — which our study and the recent worldwide success of ‘Black Panther’ suggest is a good idea — it needs to depict minority characters in a way that is true and meaningful.”
A genuine desire to capture authenticity and tell dynamic stories from all viewpoints is a necessary component. According to Ellithorpe, original, diverse content and casting has been lost in favor of an attempt to appeal to mainstream white audiences in the past. This often causes the watering down of compelling themes and accusations of Hollywood’s whitewashing to continue.
“What we want to see is truly diverse, authentic content that just so happens to also be marketed more broadly, rather than trying to create content that they think white audiences want to see,” said Ellithorpe. “Yes, we see an opportunity here for diverse content to be more broadly disseminated, but caution that it should remain authentically diverse.”
By Rianna N. Middleton