As of September of 2020, Netflix was in disarray due to the company’s worst public relations scandal to date. Cuties, a French film that had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival earlier that year, had been acquired by the streaming service for worldwide distribution rights earlier that year. The film’s director, Mamouna Doucouré, wanted to make a statement about the oversexualization of young girls in today’s society. However, Netflix’s promotional poster lacked self-awareness. Instead, it featured young actors in provocative dance poses while wearing booty shorts and crop tops, some of whom were as young as 12 years old.
This had immediate ramifications. Tweets with the hashtag #CancelNetflix have begun to gain traction on the microblogging site. #SaveTheChildren was used in tweets by QAnon conspiracy theorists who claimed that the company was distributing child pornography. More than 40,000 people signed a Change.org petition asking that the film be taken down. Matt Schaefer, a Texas lawmaker, asked the state’s attorney general to look into “possible violations of child exploitation and child pornography laws” in the film.
Netflix issued an apology for the poster, but maintained its support for the film. It was the marketing, not the movie itself, that sparked such an enthusiastic response. Director Mamouna Doucouré was personally called by Co-CEO Ted Sarandos to apologize, according to Deadline.
Netflix, on the other hand, was frantically working behind the scenes to minimize negative publicity by removing the film from search results before it was released. It took Cuties out of the “coming soon” and “popular searches” sections and didn’t let people search for “cute.” Cuties had been removed. The algorithm was then tweaked so that searches for the movie would no longer return results for “steamy / sexual titles” or family-friendly fare.
In other words, the incident shows how Netflix can play with its algorithm to navigate a public relations crisis while also tightly controlling the reach of a film. Documents obtained by The Verge show how Netflix responded to the crisis by “suppress[ing] promotion and related search queries,” as the company put it.