How Netflix's shocking movie poster landed it in the middle of QAnon's child crusade
Netflix, with its new movie “Cuties,” is the latest brand to plunge into one of the most charged topics online at the moment, one that no company wants associated with their name—the sexual exploitation of children.
It would seem like an easy enough subject to avoid, but this is not a normal political climate. Groups like QAnon are energetically spinning conspiracies on social media about corporate America and child sex trafficking. Even Wayfair has been pulled into it with fake news reports about stashing kidnapped children in furniture shipments.
Last week, Netflix learned the hard way about the need to be extra mindful. The company made a rare social media misstep when it rolled out the marketing for a new foreign-language film called “Cuties,” translated from the original French title, “Mignones.” Netflix released a trailer and cover art for the movie, which depicted a preteen dance crew in suggestive outfits and poses. One online petition collected tens of thousands of supporters demanding Netflix block the movie.
Plenty of the online criticism was from genuine shock, says Anne-Laure Le Cunff, co-founder of Ness Labs, an artificial intelligence startup in the health and wellness space.
“It was just crazy, the gap between the vibe of the original trailer and what Netflix decided to do with it,” says Le Cunff. “I was just shocked how they managed to turn something that looks like a sensitive topic, but what looks like more of a coming of age movie, into this super-sexualized narrative.”
Netflix was quickly forced to apologize for the marketing around the film, and changed the artwork and description of the movie.
Netflix's original description for “Cuties” said it was about an 11-year-old immigrant fascinated with her friends’ twerking dance crew. The description and poster were seen as sexually suggestive, even though the Senegalese filmmaker Maïmouna Doucouré made the movie to criticize sexualizing children.
The cover art for the film now shows the four young stars of the movie from the neck up, instead of the original poster, which had them in dance costumes and poses.
For the most part, the public backlash has subsided, but Netflix’s stumble is an example of a serious threat to brands in a hot digital landscape. They can get burned if they don’t understand the social media mood where QAnon followers are vigilantly looking for new targets. QAnon was very much part of the backlash Netflix faced; it’s a group that has been targeted for removal by social platforms like Facebook and Twitter for creating conspiracies like the one that Hollywood is run by a cabal of child cannibal sex traffickers.
QAnon groups even manifest in the real world, and just this weekend were seen organizing protests carrying their favorite hashtag “SaveOurChildren” onto the streets. A search on Twitter for “Netflix” and “#SaveOurChildren” shows the two are being linked, much like Wayfair has been linked with the phrase.
“It’s really important for brands to know that they can get dragged into any one of these things at any point in time,” says Lindsey Roeschke, director, analyst at Gartner for Marketers. “Wayfair probably never thought they had to crisis plan to respond to child sex trafficking allegations.”
Brands are clearly bleary eyed from all the social media outrage that is being generated these days. Last week, Goodyear was on the receiving end of one of President Donald Trump’s tweets, forcing the company to respond to erroneous reports about its policies.
Netflix declined to comment for this story when asked about how it handled its social media moment. The company has been praised for its adept use of channels like Twitter and Instagram to promote the service and generate interest in hit shows like “Stranger Things” and “Black Mirror.” But on YouTube, the “Cuties” trailer has almost 1 million thumbs down, and only 27,000 thumbs up. Nearly 120,000 people commented on the trailer.
“They perverted the message,” Le Cunff says. “You couldn’t have gotten it more wrong than they did.”
Further complicating Netflix’s rollout of the movie, which is still set to stream Sept. 9, is the fact that the company was also trying to celebrate the Black filmmaker. The company has made a point in the Black Lives Matter movement to raise more diverse voices in its content.
At the end of the day, though, Netflix really did create a troubling promotion for a movie about kids.
“From my perspective this isn’t about Black voices,” says Belinda Smith, a global marketing leader who works with the ad industry on diversity and inclusion issues. “It is about child exploitation.”