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Netflix: A Case For Shareholder Activism

  • Jerry Bowyer Chief Economist of Vident Financial, Editor of Townhall Finance, and President of Bowyer Research
  • Published Oct 16, 2020

By Jerry Bowyer and Charles Bowyer.

Do I own Netflix? That's the question everyone concerned about Netflix’s recent promotion of the film Cuties should be asking themselves. Much has been said in conservative media about this film, but little of it has been oriented toward actual productive change at the company responsible for its appalling marketing campaign. It is as if conservatives regard Netflix as some foreign political power, the workings of which we have no say in. But nothing could be further from the truth: Netflix is a publicly traded company, which means the true owners are its shareholders. As it is a large-cap company, listed on the widely held S&P 500, a large number of Americans own stock in Netflix in one way or another. Ordinary investors have the power to be a check on any publicly traded company and to help prevent something like what happened with Cuties from happening again.

Some brief background for those who are not up to date on this controversy: Netflix advertised a French film by the name of Cuties with a scandalous poster featuring pre-teens dressed like members of a pop band from the 2000s, and a description that peddled it as an empowering story of an 11-year-old girl “rebelling against her conservative family’s traditions” through highly sexualized dancing. There is some debate over the film’s actual content, leaving aside Netflix’s marketing, with the director herself arguing that it was intended as a criticism of how modern culture sexualizes and exploits young girls — a story about a young girl caught between the explicit misogyny of radical Islam and the implicit misogyny of libertine modernity. But even if we assume for the sake of argument that her defense is valid, Netflix’s conduct was still inexcusable — perhaps even more so because it took a film that might have had some nuanced things to say about how our own society can degrade and turned it into the exact thing that part of the film was railing against. In any event, Netflix was implicitly valorizing erotic dancing by children as a liberating act of rebellion against outdated norms.

Needless to say, this has embroiled Netflix in a massive controversy, prompting it to remove the film’s poster and blurb from the site and publicly apologize. Three sitting Republican senators called for an explanation from Netflix directly. Among them was Senator Ted Cruz, who, to his great credit, sent a letter to the Department of Justice asking that it investigate whether Netflix violated federal laws against the production of child pornography. Four state attorneys general have asked Netflix to remove the film from its catalogue.

Leaving aside for a moment the immorality of featuring this film — particularly in the way it was marketed — it was clearly a bad decision on Netflix’s part purely from a business perspective. According to data research company YipitData, Netflix saw a dramatic spike in cancellations after the story broke. Over the course of September, when the controversy over Cuties was particularly fervent, Netflix underperformed the NASDAQ technology sector, dropping by 5.6 percent compared with -3.7 percent for the NDXT.

As for how it happened, given that these decisions are likely made internally within Netflix’s marketing department, it is unlikely that we will ever know for sure, but it does illustrate the necessity of viewpoint diversity at big-tech firms. Would Netflix have designed a marketing campaign in this way if there were, say, some conservative Christians involved in the decision-making process? The lack of any programs to promote diversity of viewpoint at Netflix, or big tech generally, is at least partially to blame here. The reaction to this film has largely been one of outrage and disgust across the political spectrum, so care should be taken not to uniformly blame “the Left” for Netflix’s marketing of Cuties. But the campaign was using a political angle, by casting the child dance crew as a release from conservative family traditions. To be clear, the “conservative family traditions” in the film are those of traditional Islam, such as polygamy, but Netflix opted to use vague and politically charged language that conjured up orthodox religious values in general. Evidently, some employees at Netflix thought they could increase user engagement by portraying the sexual exploitation of minors as simply another bold act of defiance against conservative traditions as a whole. It is a reasonable assumption that a conservative marketer would not have gone down the road Netflix’s current team did.

While that is all true, merely saying it does little to prevent something like this from happening again. Conservatives, and many liberals, have rightly decried the Cuties marketing as appalling exploitation of children, but aside from the actions of a few red-state senators and attorneys general, little has been offered in the way of meaningful action. We could go on and on about how terrible Netflix’s behavior was, and we would be right to, but that would do little to promote actual change at the company. What does promote change is shareholder activism.

As the owners of a publicly traded company, shareholders are in ultimate control and have a say in the matter. Shareholders can propose resolutions, vote on resolutions, and vote on the board of directors. The managements of woke corporations can argue that moral questions are irrelevant to business operations, but that argument holds no water here. By advertising Cuties in the way that it did, Netflix has incurred substantial legal and regulatory risk, to make no mention of the spike in cancellations. The company now has three sitting senators and four attorneys general breathing down its neck, and for good reason. This issue is directly relevant to the company as a whole, which means it is directly relevant to its shareholders.

Shareholders can demand programs promoting viewpoint diversity at Netflix. Shareholders can demand an internal investigation into why something this appalling was allowed to go public. Any and all of those options should be utilized here. What Netflix did was profoundly immoral, and the mere fact that the poster and description passed through the company and no one stopped and pointed this out exposes serious weakness at the company. It’s a weakness that shareholders have the means, and the responsibility, to fix. 

This article originally appeared on National Review.