A breastfeeding workshop, pants for postpartum comfort, consent education: these are some of the services and products featured in ads that Facebook has declined, according to a new report from the Center for Intimacy Justice.
For the report, Jackie Rotman, founder of the nonprofit, interviewed employees and executives of more than 35 companies focused on women’s sexual health issues – including pelvic pain, menopause, menstruation, and fertility – and interviewed dozen more. (The survey was conducted in collaboration with Origin, a pelvic floor physiotherapy company.)
All 60 companies had rejected ads from Facebook, and around half of them said their accounts had been banned at some point, the report released on Tuesday. In most cases, Facebook had labeled the ads as “adult content” or as advertising for “adult products and services”.
In its advertising guidelines, Facebook says that “advertising for sexual and reproductive health products or services, such as contraception and family planning, must be targeted at people 18 years of age and older and should not focus on sexual pleasure.”
Facebook offers examples of inadmissible advertisements on its website (“Buy our sex toys for adult pleasure”) and those that are (“new moisturizing lubricant to relieve vaginal dryness in everyday life” and “practice safe sex”) with our condom brand “).
Still, Ms. Rotman found many ads for men that Facebook accepted, despite appearing to violate the guidelines of the social media platform: an ad for condoms that said “pleasure”; one for lubricant (“Lotion Made Just For Men Only”); and another for an erectile dysfunction pill that promises a “wet hot American summer.”
“Right now it’s arbitrary where they say a product is allowed or not in a way that we think has really sexist overtones and a lack of understanding of health,” said Ms. Rotman. She said it was a “systemic problem” and added that it was particularly damaging for small businesses.
“We welcome the promotion of sexual wellness products, but we prohibit nudity and have specific rules for how these products can be marketed on our platform,” wrote a spokesman for Meta, the parent company of Facebook, in an email. “We gave advertisers detailed information about the types of products and descriptions we allow in ads.”
The spokesman added that Facebook is making mistakes in enforcing its advertising policies and that it has lifted multiple disapprovals of ads that some of the companies mentioned in the report have experienced.
One company that has struggled to get Facebook-approved ads is Joylux, which sells menopause health products, including a device that is inserted into the vagina and used to strengthen the pelvic floor.
“Our consumer is a Facebook user,” said Colette Courtion, CEO of Joylux, who founded the company in 2014. “She is a 50 year old woman. Facebook is the best place for them to find out about menopause issues. ”Ms. Courtion added that Facebook is Joylux’s primary customer acquisition channel.
But, she said, Joylux employees have long been confused by Facebook’s policies and how they apply.
“Because of the nature of our product, the way it looks,” she said, Facebook and other companies consider it “pornographic”.
Since 2017, Joylux’s Facebook account has been closed twice, Ms. Courtion said. The company didn’t tell her why.
Heather Dazell, vice president of marketing at Joylux, said she found that “any ad that goes directly to our site would be automatically disapproved for the word ‘vagina’.”
A spokesman for Meta said that Facebook does not have a blanket ban on words like “menopause” or “vagina” but is considering “how each ad is positioned”.
Over the years, Joylux has withdrawn its approach to Facebook advertising. But even with the changes Joylux has made to its texts and images, many of its ads are rejected in the initial review process. Two years ago, Joylux began working with an agency to help the company challenge ad rejections. Usually the ads are released after the appeal.
But the process is time consuming and expensive, Ms. Courtion said, and the resulting advertisements are not helpful to consumers. “We can’t show what the product looks like and we can’t tell what it does,” she said.
Intimate Rose, a Kansas City, Missouri, company that sells vaginal dilators and pelvic floor weights and rods, had similar problems. “Usually we’re always rejected,” says Adrienne Fleming, the company’s digital media manager.
She provided several examples, including an ad featuring a fully clothed, laughing couple (“live, laugh and love again with Intimate Rose pelvic health products,” the copy reads). Two other ads showed videos of women discussing how Intimate Rose weights had helped them with incontinence. Ms. Fleming said all ads were disapproved because Facebook categorized them as “adult products or services.”
In the adult products section of its trade policy, Meta gives several examples of prohibited items: “Sex toys, sexual enhancement products, sexually oriented adult products such as pornography or used or worn underwear, images of nudity, including partial nudity of children, even if there is is not sexual in nature. “
But the policy says that “products like lubricants or condoms that are not designed for sexual pleasure or sexual enhancement” are allowed.
In an exchange with Facebook that she shared with the New York Times, Ms. Fleming pointed out that the company’s products are not intended for sexual intercourse or pleasure. The Facebook rep then referred to the trade guideline, saying the ad was rightly rejected and he couldn’t provide any further details as those could be used to circumvent the guideline in the future.
“It comes down to the judgment of the reviewer,” said Aaron Wilt, co-founder of Intimate Rose.
Businesses aren’t the only companies using Facebook advertising. RNW Media, a non-profit organization in the Netherlands, is building online communities for social change – including Love Matters, which is focused on sexual and reproductive health and rights and relies on Facebook ads to reach its audience.
According to a report on the sustainability of journalism and news media presented on the United Nations Internet Governance Forum in 2020, almost 1,800 ads that Love Matters posted on Facebook were disapproved of as “adult content” in six years. or categorized as “sex toys”.
Michael Okun Oliech, social media director of Love Matters Kenya, said Facebook recently turned down two ads it submitted to promote an “escort service”. One was about consent; the other was about living with HIV
He said the appeal process would take him anywhere from a week to months and that he rarely had the opportunity to speak to “a real person.” To avoid rejection, Mr. Okun Oliech started using slang and replacing words describing specific body parts with fruit emojis (a tactic that has worked for companies like Hims, which sell Viagra).
But Charlotte Petty, human rights expert at RNW Media, worries about the consequences of an indirect or euphemistic representation. “There are ways to moderate the censorship, but at some point we endanger our own work,” she said.
The Facebook advertising platform has been criticized again and again in recent years. In 2018, a Washington Post investigation found that dozens of ads for LGBTQ-related events, businesses, and nonprofits were blocked from the social network because they were classified as “political”. Facebook, which requires advertisers focused on politics or social issues to go through several additional tiers of ad approval, cited the majority of ad disapprovals as errors.
In November, Meta announced it would prevent advertisers from targeting people with promotions based on their exposure to content related to health, race and ethnicity, political affiliation, religion and sexual orientation, and other identifiers. The tools were used to discriminate against certain groups and to spam people.
When it comes to sexual health and wellness companies, Ms. Rotman hopes Facebook can act quickly. “This is a fixable problem,” she said. “It’s not as complicated as protecting democracy or elections. The point is to find a way to make sure ads related to women’s health aren’t blocked. It’s just a matter for Facebook to decide this is something they are going to fix. “
Ryan Mac contributed to the coverage.