Netflix has plenty to lose with its edgy, uncomfortable decision to satirise Anne Frank

PR expert Paul Blanchard on pushing the boundaries of comedy to the very edge

May 31, 2019 14:52

The world of over-the-top streaming services is an incredibly competitive one, and the stakes are very high. Success will make you a household name — Netflix, Amazon Video, Now TV — and the financial prizes are huge.

Around 60 per cent of American households access services like these at least once a month, and last year Amazon Video pulled in $1.7 billion (£1.35 billion). Even for a giant like Amazon, that’s not chump change.

Competition leads to risk-taking: how else do you maintain an edge, stand apart from the pack?

This week, Netflix took the controversial decision to include in its comedy series of Historical Roasts the figure of Anne Frank, who would have turned 90 this year.

One actor, playing Hitler, is seen mocking her saying: “Everyone knows you as a hero and a best-selling author, but to me you’ll always be little number 825060.”

This is edgy, uncomfortable stuff.

I don’t know if sign-off for this production went as far up as Ted Sarandos, Netflix’s chief content officer, but the company admits that the green light was only given after “lengthy internal discussions.” We can all imagine what those might have been.

However lengthy they were, the eventual result was that Netflix, corporately, thought this was a good idea, good enough to stake their reputation on.

Image is incredibly important in a competitive market, of course; if customers can choose among a range of broadly similar services with broadly similar content, then it’s your brand which has to bear the weight of your financial (and artistic) performance.

So, it’s reasonable to ask as someone who works in reputation management: was this a smart, innovative idea, or a horrible, tin-eared miscalculation?

Netflix has a lot to lose. This April, they were named the most reputable US company in a ranking by US RepTrak, up from number 23 last year. That’s an incredibly powerful marketing tool, and a key part not just of growing the brand but of cementing its place.

The firm has even worked its way into everyday speech; people now refer to the activity of “Netflix and chill”, as a generic description of relaxing in front of streaming TV content.

That’s a vastly significant marker of acceptance and trust.

My own view is that The Roast of Anne Frank is an extremely risky move. Comedy is always about pushing boundaries to the very edge and sometimes beyond, and the most influential comedy will make some people uncomfortable.

But this struck me as something more than that: it struck me as gratuitous. There’s a lot of humour to be had from the Historical Roasts concept, but a famous Holocaust victim, being mocked by Hitler, in what would have been her 90th year? It just smacks a little bit of a child saying rude words to shock.

There’s a wider social context too. Antisemitism is a very live issue in public discourse at the moment. Here in the UK, it’s convulsing the Labour Party and proving to be an image problem which won’t go away (the party’s slogan has been parodied as “For the many, not the Jew”).

In the US, some of the new Muslim members of Congress are being scrutinised for their pro-Palestinian sentiments, with a sharp eye being cast over whether these bleed into outright anti-Jewish expressions of feeling.

Netflix knew that this was dangerous territory, or they ought to have known. I love edgy comedy, but this crossed a line which is hard to discern until you go over it.

Some reputation management advice for free: if you want controversy, be very careful to control the narrative. It needs to be a carefully-aimed dart, not a boomerang. Because you can be sure it will come back on you.

Paul Blanchard is a PR expert and Founder of Right Angles

May 31, 2019 14:52

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