Is Netflix going down a road of dishonesty by clickbaiting shows on its home page to get more clicks? One article seems to think so.
When you’re looking for a movie or TV program to watch, the last thing you need is a streaming giant like Netflix clickbaiting shows. But if you’re going to make that argument, I think you have to decide what does and doesn’t constitute clickbaiting.
I have to repeat a much earlier point: a lot of people don’t seem to know what clickbait actually is.
A recent article from Slate accuses Netflix of clickbait on its homepage. It describes the streaming service’s thumbnails, which sometimes feature sexy, steamy photos of a program’s stars or depictions of the topic of the program. The thumbnails attempt to tease you with some type of mystery; they are designed to make you curious about what’s going on.
“There’s only one way to find out: click,” the article states.
Well, yeah. Everything on a webpage is designed to make you click. That’s how it works. Did these folks ever visit a Blockbuster store? Way back in the days of VHS tapes, packagers would pick the sexiest, most mysterious images for cover images of those little boxes. They tried to tease. They implied some mystery. There was only one way to find out what was going on: rent.
I have to wonder if they’d complain about how “dull” Netflix would look if there were no images. What if each thumbnail was the title, in basic Helvetica text. No colors, no bold, no italics. Every thumbnail would have to be white text on a black square.
Does anyone think that would be an improvement?
But what constitutes clickbaiting titles?
The article cites a blog post from Netlix. That post claims that the average viewer spends only 1.8 seconds considering an individual title. They said the power the right image can have on that decision surprised them.
It notes that in 2017, Netflix began personalizing tiles for viewers based on their viewing history.
Slate then provides a few quick examples of what it suggests might serve as examples of clickbaiting titles.
It uses the film Good Will Hunting as an example. If you watch a lot of romance, it says your ‘GWH’ thumbnail might show “Matt Damon and Minnie Driver smooching.” If you view comedy, it says the title might show Robin Williams instead. The movie is a drama that features a love story subplot. It’s not a comedy, but it has a few funny moments. Again, I don’t think either of those are really “clickbaiting.” If you’re a comedy fan, you might assume seeing Robin Williams would imply the title is a comedy. But Williams often acted outside the world of comedy and some viewers don’t mind seeing actors they like appear in different genres. I don’t see anything dishonest here.
That was my point about clickbait in that earlier article four years ago: if you promise or imply a promise of something and you deliver, that’s not clickbait. Showing a photo of Robin Williams for film in which he is one of the top stars is fair. Showing a photo of Matt Damon and Minnie Driver for a film in which their characters’ love story is an important part is also fair.
That’s not clickbait. That’s marketing.
Slate also points to an article from Wired claiming that people of color may be shown performers of color in their tiles, even if those performers portray “relatively minor characters.” That example might be a better example of unfair portrayals of a movie title. If there’s little diversity in a cast and a performer of color plays a small role, a tile showing that performer solely because the viewer’s history shows a preference for more diverse titles might just be unfair.
Clickbaiting, though, is in the eye of the beholder
Ultimately, the viewer has to decide whether they’ve been deceived by a tile. But if I see a tile that intrigues me, I click the tile to read the write-up. If I’m still interested after reading the description and cast list, I’ll usually watch the trailer first. If I’m still interested after that, I might try the actual show.
So by the time I get that far, I’m no longer relying on a tile to make my decision. That tile may have gotten me “in the door,” but I have to see a lot more before I take off my coat and have a seat in the living room.
The tile personalization definitely feels more like good marketing than anything dishonest, minus the type of example I listed with the performers of color. But even then, a minor character can have a big impact in a program’s pivotal moment. So even that example may not be dishonest as it seems…unless you’re seeking a film with a lot of diversity. If that’s the case, you’d still see how diverse the film is from the cast list or trailer before you started watching.
Are tiles implying or promising too much? It’s a tough question to answer outside of a case-by-case basis. I don’t know that Netflix is doing anything that the other services aren’t doing.
I think it comes down to how much effort you want to put into educating yourself before you click that final play.
Like all other things, we have to take a little responsibility when we shop around. Netflix wants you viewing their library. They want the streaming minutes. That gives them more ad plays. They don’t care what you watch…as long as you watch something.
That’s why what we choose should be on us, not them.