In response to outrage over the move, a Universal spokesman said the altered poster aimed "to simplify the poster to actors who are most [recognizable] in international markets."
I watch a lot of old movies-- with a strong bias toward musical comedy, film noir, and Westerns-- and in adulthood I have noticed the clever direction and editing of the films themselves, if not their marketing. Black people, especially entertainers, often appeared in segregated, self-contained scenes which could be literally cut out for showing in locales where it would have been, er, imprudent to show the races as equals.
This is most easily observed on cable nowadays, as many of the oldies have been restored to their former glory, warts and all. The most recent example I saw was just a few days ago, in Hollywood Hotel (1937). Benny Goodman conducted an all-white band practice, followed immediately by a segment with Goodman "practicing" with a jazz combo featuring Lionel Hampton. I sadly imagine the many theatergoers of the time who never even realized that Hampton was in the film at all.
The studios' process and reasons are documented in many places, but I will cite liberally from Chapter 5 of Donald Bogle's seminal work Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies & Bucks (1973):
Like the servants of the 1930s, the entertainers, too, set out to delight and please without at all changing anyone's life. Yet unlike the servants, whose familiarity with the stars of the 1930s films had irritated some patrons, the entertainers syndrome was clearly a safe device. Because musical numbers were not integrated into the scripts, the scenes featuring the blacks could be cut from the films should local (or Southern) theater owners feel their audiences would object to seeing a Negro. The whole procedure now seems ridiculous and archaic; it was but another way in which motion pictures catered to audience prejudices.
Ridiculous and archaic indeed. Bogle goes on to discuss in detail the specific cases of Hazel Scott and Lena Horne, and I recommend his entire book. It is astonishing (though some would wryly disagree, saying it is no surprise) that decades later, studio executives would use similar reasoning to come to the same result-- disappeared black people! But as the pullquote at top suggests, plus ca change...
The most recent case involves Faizon Love and Kali Hawk, as seen (or not seen) in promos for Couples Retreat:
Universal's UK 'Couples Retreat' Poster Brings Cries of Racism by Removing Black Actors
by Matt Ufford
November 16, 2009
A racially-tinged advertising decision has gone awry for the movie "Couples Retreat."
Marketers of the Vince Vaughn comedy, which stars four couples in a tropical paradise, removed black actors Faizon Love and Kali Hawk from the promotional poster used in the United Kingdom after the U.S. version used all four couples.
Both posters (US and UK) were heavily Photoshopped. But I think Photoshopping someone into the ether is going a bit far. The studio spokesperson's statement contains an ironic Catch-22 (okay, that's redundant) in that the two black actors were removed so as to retain those most recognizable, yet it is unlikely that they will ever become more recognizable if they aren't in the marketing!