Social Media may offer a Remedy to Hollywood’s Whitewashing Problem
Hollywood often “whitewashes” movies by casting White actors in roles that are written as race-neutral or even as characters of color. Hollywood defends these controversial casting decisions by alleging that such casting is necessary to make a movie a commercial success for a wide audience, implying that White audiences will not see movies starring actors of color. The success of recent movies, like Hidden Figures and Black Panther, challenges this idea. In a new article published in the NCA journal Communication Monographs, Andrew J. Weaver and Jessica R. Frampton completed two studies to examine when and why White audiences see movies with predominantly Black casts.
The first study investigated the reasons that White audiences sometimes prefer to see movies with predominantly White casts. Weaver and Frampton examined three factors: perceived similarity with characters, perceived thematic relevance, and perceived intended audience. Perceived similarity with characters refers to whether audience members expect to identify with characters. The audience may identify with characters because of their race, physical appearance, or their attitudes. Weaver and Frampton were interested in whether the audience perceived themselves as like the characters in the movie. If audience members believed that they could more easily relate to characters because of their physical similarity or attitudes, then they might be more likely to see the movie. Perceived thematic relevance refers to whether the audience believes that the issues and events in the movie are relevant to them. Finally, audiences may use casting decisions, such as whether a movie has a predominantly White or Black cast, as a shorthand to determine if they are the target audience of the movie. Perceived intended audience refers to whether the audience believes that they are the intended audience for a movie. Weaver and Frampton investigated these factors through a survey.
Weaver and Frampton recruited study participants using community newspaper ads and undergraduate communication courses. Because there were not enough responses from non-White participants to compare results, the study only considered the responses from the 150 White participants.
For the study, Weaver and Frampton crafted eight movie synopses, like ones that would be found on the Internet Movie Database (IMDB). Half were for romantic movies, and half were for action/adventure movies. Weaver and Frampton created webpages, like those on IMDB, with the title, plot, cast list, and cast pictures. To test how the racial makeup of movies influenced whether White audiences were likely to attend, participants viewed eight webpages, one for each synopsis. On the webpages, cast members were randomly assigned thumbnail photos, so that the casts were 70% White, 70% Black, all-Black, or all-White. After each synopsis, participants were asked questions to gauge whether they were interested in seeing the movie in theaters, renting it, or watching it on television.
“Audiences may have enough experience with traditional marketing campaigns to automatically draw the connection between a minority cast and a minority intended audience even when such a connection is not explicitly made.” . . . One way marketers can overcome this bias is through social media marketing.
Weaver and Frampton found that White participants were more interested in seeing movies with majority White casts. Some movie preference was due to how relevant the audience felt the theme of the movie was and how they related to the characters in the movie. Weaver and Frampton also found that White participants felt that they were not the intended audience for movies with a predominantly Black cast. Although the movies only differed because of the cast photos, White participants still discerned that they were not the target audience because of the composition of the cast. Weaver and Frampton argue, “Audiences may have enough experience with traditional marketing campaigns to automatically draw the connection between a minority cast and a minority intended audience even when such a connection is not explicitly made.” They reasoned that it may be possible for marketing changes to overcome this perception.
One way marketers can overcome this bias is through social media marketing. When social media users see that users similar to themselves are interested in a movie, they are more likely to want to see it. In the second study, Weaver and Frampton tested whether positive social media reviews could alter participants’ intention to see movies. In this study, they did not recruit participants locally. Instead, they recruited through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, which allows people to pay others for completing tasks, like surveys. Only responses from White participants were used to compare to the previous study.
Weaver and Frampton used four of the synopses from the previous study. Each synopsis had either a 70% White cast or a 70% Black cast. Then, the synopses were paired with different social media conditions, “so each movie had six versions: White cast with White social media feed, White cast with Black social media feed, White cast with no social media feed, Black cast with White social media feed, Black cast with Black social media feed, and Black cast with no social media feed.” Using the same questions as the previous study, Weaver and Frampton found that White participants were more likely to see a movie with a predominantly Black cast when it received positive comments on a predominantly white social media feed.
Overall, Weaver and Frampton found that White audiences were less likely to report planning to watch movies with predominantly Black casts because they believed they were not the intended audience for those movies. This assumption is likely based in part on the realities of marketing in the U.S.: “Aside from a few crossover attempts, many movies released in the United States with casts of mostly Black actors have smaller budgets and are marketed specifically for Black audiences; little attempt is made to attract White audiences to such movies.” However, social media buzz encouraged White audiences to see movies that they otherwise might not have seen. According to Weaver and Frampton, these results “suggest that the economic impetus for whitewashing in Hollywood is not an insurmountable hurdle.”