dear netflix … really?

This is the closest I’m ever going to get to a topical blog post about a current news story and, while I’m aware that there’s some quite significant politics stuff happening in America right now, what I actually want to talk about is the Netflix original movie, A Christmas Prince, and Netflix’s ill thought out Tweet about it. For those who’ve missed this particular story, Netflix appear to have done a series of Tweets about user data (which is already something companies have to be really careful about) and one of the Tweets read: “To the 53 people who’ve watched A Christmas Prince every day for the past 18 days: Who hurt you?”

Now, in a vacuum I don’t think there’s anything wrong with using interesting bits of user data for marketing purposes. It’s anonymised, it sometimes throws up fun quirky factoids, and, if presented non-judgmentally, the fact that a small but non-trivial number of people have watched a particular movie every single day is an intriguing observation. The thing is, it wasn’t exactly presented non-judgementally and that makes it feel very different, especially, I suspect, if you are one of the 53 people who have basically just been called pathetic in public by a company with whom they have a business relationship. It’s kind of the equivalent of … well … this is going to be a tortured example but bear with me.

KFC (at least in this country) used to do a meal called the “Boneless Banquet For One”. It was basically a KFC value meal in which none of the chicken had bones because not everyone likes chicken with bones. But the name was not terribly well received and probably not terribly well thought out. Because, let’s face it, going into a KFC and asking for the Boneless Banquet For One is about the most humiliating thing you can do in a KFC. And I did actually see stand-up comedians do jokes in which they pointed out what a terrible name Boneless Banquet For One was, and speculated about the kind of sad pathetic life you might have to have to consider ordering such an item in the world’s largest fried chicken franchise.

The thing is, KFC never Tweeted from their corporate account: “53 people have bought a Boneless Banquet For One every day for the last 18 days. Get a life guys.”

Because surely day 1 of marketing 101 is “don’t equate using the product that you make and sell with being a loser”. I mean, I really can’t believe I’m having to explain that to a large, multi-national corporation.

Now obviously the difference between KFC and Netflix is that KFC has a very small menu of food offerings, each of which they take personal responsibility for, whereas Netflix has a massive menu of entertainment offerings, most of which are provided by third parties. So I can absolutely see how Chad the Social Media Wonk, in order to keep up with his punishing daily Tweet quota, decided he could construct a pithy observation based upon the surprising datum that 53 people had watched a particular cheesy movie every day for the best part of a month.

There are, however, two problems with this. The first is that Chad seems to have forgotten that the anonymised data around which he was constructing his witticism wasn’t just numbers. It represented actual people who subscribed to his company’s service and, especially given that 53 is a very small and specific number, when he Tweeted about that group of people every single one of them would have known who they were and known that he was taking the piss out of them directly. Again, I shouldn’t have to explain to a multinational corporation why that’s a bad idea. The second problem with Chad’s tweet is the one that bothers me more (because, frankly, Netflix being crap at business isn’t really my problem) and that’s that Chad did a very poor job of examining the assumptions he was making about who the 53 people who watched A Christmas Prince every day for 18 days were and what their lives were like.

If you’ve not already seen it (and I would generally have said “go watch it, it’s fabulous” but obviously the context makes that recommendation difficult because I’d essentially be encouraging you to reward a corporation for being dicks to its customers) A Christmas Prince is a self-consciously cheesy movie about a young American girl who goes to a fictional European country and falls in love with their wayward but misunderstood Prince. It’s basically a Harlequin but on screen. I watched it the day it came out and I really enjoyed it because it’s fun and light-hearted and Christmassy and uplifting and nice. It is exactly what you think it is and exactly what it intends to be, and I admire things that are like that. Do be aware, there’s disabled child in it and, while I’m in no way qualified to talk about disability issues, I would say that its handling of her experiences is well-intentioned but probably over-simplistic and she does basically exist to allow the heroine to demonstrate her warm heart and free spirit, which isn’t great. If that’s a deal breaker for you, then I completely get that.

And, as it happens, I’ve only watched A Christmas Prince once. Partly because I’m busy watching every movie Hugh Grant has ever made and there are only so many hours in a day. And partly because, yes, I personally didn’t particularly feel the need to watch the same film every day for 18 days. But I think can think of about ten different reasons why you might and none of these reasons involve someone having “hurt you” with all of the skeeviness that implies.

Basically Chad’s Tweet (and I should sincerely apologise to people called Chad) pretty much encapsulates everything that’s wrong with the way the rest of world views romance, and especially romance readers. It does not admit of any reason for engaging with an uncomplicatedly happy love story that isn’t rooted in fundamental psychological dysfunction. And, obviously, I’m reading quite a lot into literally three words here, but just that phrase “who hurt you” carries so much problematic and problematically gendered baggage about, well, everything. It suggests that people who watch and enjoy that film are lonely and sad. It suggests that the reason they are lonely and sad is because someone has made them lonely and sad. While it does not specifically use any gendered language it is also not the sort of phrase you would use if you were talking to a dude. At least not if you were talking to a dude about his habit of watching schmaltzy movies (you’d tell him to man up or grow a pair or point out he’d never get laid that way—all of which also problematic, but in a different way).  Maybe I’m projecting but in the same way that a tweet about how some people have watched the new Star Wars movie every day for the last 18 days followed by a comment about how they should get out of their mom’s basement would be playing into a very specific stereotype about people who like Star Wars, so this Tweet seems to play into a very specific stereotype about people who like romance. Which everyone is already so familiar with that I won’t do it the dignity of articulating it.

At the start of this post I said I could think of at least ten reasons why a person might have watched A Christmas Prince every day for the last 18 days, none of which are “because that person is a sad loser” which is what Netflix seems to be implying (again, it seems to be implying this about its own paying customers, what the fuck Netflix). Now I kind of pulled this number out my arse but because I basically never bluff let’s see if I can actually get to ten:

  1. You are a godawful hipster. Having reamed Netflix for using disparaging language I’ve probably made a bad start here, but let me stress that I’m using the term ‘godawful hipster’ affectionately and speaking as someone who identifies as a godawful hipster myself (for fuck’s sake, my user icon is a top hat). I can absolutely see somebody just really liking the idea of watching the same cheesy Christmas movie every day between now and Christmas. You can make a ritual of it. You can MST3K it. You can livetweet it or do a series of Tumblr posts or even just text your ironic observations to your equally hipstery friends. I’m starting with this suggestion because Chad’s original Tweet seems to imply that people who’ve watched this film a lot are emotionally invested in it to an extent that suggests deep seated psychological problems and I wanted to point out that that the group of people most likely to watch the same cheesy movie way more than is normal are actually the group who are least likely to be emotionally invested in it.
  2. You are an actual child or you have an actual child. Children are legitimately different from adults. A small child will quite happily watch the same film every day for a month and not even think that’s unusual. A Christmas Prince is a sweet family movie with an adorable kid in it. I’d bet pretty good money that a good proportion those 53 people who’ve watched the film every day the last 18 days have done so at the request of their children.
  3. Backgrounding part 1: work. Okay maybe this is just me but I’m sure it’s not. I hope it’s not. Anyway, I like to have stuff on in the background while I do routine work. Obviously not if it’s not something where I have to concentrate really hard and especially not if it’s something that I have to engage with creatively but if I’m washing up, or putting data on a spreadsheet, or filing or ironing I like to have something on in the background that isn’t music and that I don’t have to pay too much attention to. This will almost always be either a really formulaic TV show (terrible police procedurals are the best thing because you just get to look up every 20 minutes and they’ll fill you in on what all the clues have been) or something I’ve seen before. I wouldn’t personally use A Christmas Prince for this purpose because it’s got too many princes and not enough murders but that is purely a style choice.
  4. Backgrounding part 2: exercise. You’d have to be a lot fitter than me for this to work but a huge number of people like to have something to watch or listen to while they’re exercising. And because having a ritual genuinely helps with someone you have to do every day it’s really useful if it’s the same sort of thing. Now obviously this movie is about an hour and a half long so you’d have to have quite a serious regime (or else be one of those people who cardios for ages) but I can completely see that A Christmas Prince would be a great thing to watch while trying to hit your daily step count.
  5. Backgrounding part 3: holiday admin. There are loads of things related to the holiday season that are or can be soul-crushingly tedious. Maybe you have to write out a hundred Christmas cards. Maybe you have to wrap presents for a massive extended family. If you’re doing that kind of thing it can be really easy to lose track of why you’re doing it, and having a totally unironic, totally sincere romantic Christmas movie on in the background is a really good way to keep yourself in the holiday spirit while you’re doing the fundamentally not very festive bits of your festive celebration.
  6. You just fucking love Christmas. I wouldn’t choose to watch A Christmas Prince every day during the Christmas season. I do, however, start eating mince pies in October and I’m pretty sure I’d watch A Muppet’s Christmas Carol every day if I thought I could get away with it because the muppets are great. Some people really like to intensely engage with Christmas as a thing. For some people that’s for religious reasons, for some people it’s cultural, for some people it reminds them of the best part of their childhood, for some it’s trying to make up for the worst part. People have their seasonal rituals. Some people listen to Christmas music, some people wear Christmas jumpers, some people might choose to watch the same Christmas movies every day just as a way of getting themselves hyped up for a season that can otherwise be genuinely quite draining.
  7. The real world is kind of shit right now. Again, I’m not going to talk about contemporary politics on this blog but, um, if you’re at all bothered by transgender people being excluded from the military, or it apparently being okay to be a neo-Nazi now, or all the sexual harassment stuff, or if you, y’know, aren’t too wild about the possibility of nuclear war then maybe an escapist film about a nice American lady who marries as nice, ambiguously European Prince is what you really need to be watching to unwind in the evenings. Escapism is not a dirty word. Sometimes escapism is incredibly valuable.
  8. Your kid/spouse/sibling/mate from university is in it or helped make it and you are really, really proud of them. I’ll admit I put this category in mostly as a joke and because, I’ll be honest, ten was bit ambitious and I’m running low on ideas but, actually, just to get super mathsy for a bit there’s quite an interesting point to be made here about selection bias. Because we’re not talking about randomly selected Netflix users here. Obviously any random person with a Netflix account is so vanishingly unlikely to have a personal connection to any given thing they watch that it isn’t even worth considering. But we’re talking specifically about the 53 people who have watched this film more than any others. I’ve had quick look on IMDB and there are 20 people with name roles in this film. Between them and their families there must be at least 53 people who are directly personally connected to it and some of those may well have decided to watch the film every day, either because they’re super pleased their friend is in a movie, or because their kid doesn’t live at home anymore and they miss them, or because they (perhaps correctly or perhaps incorrectly) believe that by watching the film every day they will improve its ratings, thereby increasing the chances that their friend/sibling/spouse/child will get work in future.
  9. You find that this particular movie helps you sleep. Again, this a ritual thing. It really does help to regulate your sleeping patterns if you do the same sort of thing before you go to bed every night. I know some people who listen to the same music, I know some people who listen to the same audiobook or a small range of audiobooks, I know people who read the same book or the same sort of book. It’s eminently plausible that A Christmas Prince, being a light, engaging, unthreatening movie with no explosions and very little yelling, does this job for some people.
  10. You’re sharing an account. This is a little bit naughty but it’s possible that the accounts on which this film have been watched every day are, in fact, being used by multiple people (people who may also fall independently into any of the categories listed above). I could quite easily see an eighteen person book group where one person says “hey, have you seen this awesome movie on Netflix” and everybody else says “I’d like to watch that but I haven’t got Netflix and I don’t want to get it for just one film” and so they pass a password around for eighteen days. And thus the film gets watched 18 times but no individual person watches it more than once or twice. Again, not super plausible. But, again, we’re talking about 53 people out of millions. The reasons for implausible behaviours are almost always themselves implausible.
  11. Special bonus reason: somebody did, in fact, hurt you. Because, you know what? This is a nice movie. I mean, it’s not exactly the most progressive film in the world. The only representation in the entire film is that the heroine has one friend who is black and one friend who, I think, we’re supposed to believe is gay based solely on his beard and his sass. But basically it’s a happy story about two nice people who fall in love in a fundamentally unrealistic environment. And apart from the two comically evil antagonists, every single other character is kind and warm and supportive and loving. So, yes, maybe for some of the people who have watched this film it it’s because their wife has just left them or their boyfriend has just cheated on them or their child has just died and they’re looking for something to make them feel happy because they don’t currently feel happy. And, you know what, fuck you Netflix for turning that into something shitty.

PS – I have a book out today. If you read it, I’ll think you’re cool.

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