Universal's new black eye: African American actors disappear from 'Couples Retreat' poster
It's perfectly normal for a Hollywood studio to revamp its marketing campaign when a film is released overseas. Every culture is a wee bit different, so marketing tweaks happen all the time. But Universal Pictures really goofed in a big way when it released a new poster for the U.K. release of its hit comedy, "Couples Retreat," which stars Vince Vaughn as one half of a couple who join three other couples on a holiday dedicated to improving everyone's marital relationships.
The original U.S. poster was a bit crowded, showing all eight featured actors in the film. So for the film's U.K. release, Universal's marketing wizards decided to simplify the poster by ... cutting out the film's black couple! All six white actors remain in the U.K. poster. But the actors playing the film's African American couple -- Faizon Love and Kali Hawk -- disappeared altogether. The U.K. poster keeps Vince Vaughn front and center -- after all, he's the star -- while moving the supporting white couples up more into the foreground. (You can read London Mail's story about the gaffe here.)
No one at Universal is talking on the record, at least so far. But it's obvious that the studio wanted to simplify the poster -- the rule of thumb in marketing is the fewer faces on a poster, the better. It's also obvious that the black actors were the least known members of the cast. Still, no one seemed to realize what a PR disaster would unfold if the only actors who were cut were the African American couple. After Universal was swamped by letters of complaint and negative U.K. press coverage, it quickly moved to quell the outrage by agreeing to return to its original poster with the full cast for future international releases. But the damage was done. Vivienne Pattison, director of Media Watch UK, told the Mail: "I think this was an ill-conceived move. We celebrate diversity in Britain and we could have coped with seeing the same poster used in America."
Studios make dumb decisions all the time. But I've talked to enough frustrated black filmmakers over the years to know the real underlying issue behind these kinds of gaffes. The decision-makers at studios are virtually all white, so they don't see potential racial slights in the same light as they would if they had someone -- anyone! -- of color in the executive suite. When I asked a Universal executive who its highest ranking African American marketing executive would be, he gave an honest answer, saying the studio would pull a zero. So, to be fair, would most other Hollywood studios.
As always, the real solution to this kind of issue would be for Hollywood to find a way to hire a decent sampling of African American executives so its decision-making wouldn't look so clueless and out of touch with the diversity in the rest of our culture. Studio reps always tell me they are involved in all sorts of affirmative action campaigns. So maybe they're trying to do better, but I'm still waiting to see some concrete results.
Images: Top, the U.S. poster; below, the altered version for the U.K.