A breastfeeding workshop, pants for postpartum comfort, consent education: these are some of the services and products featured in the ads Facebook has rejected, according to a new report from the Center for Intimacy Justice.
For the report, Jackie Rotman, the founder of the nonprofit, interviewed employees and executives of more than 35 companies focused on issues related to women’s sexual health, including pelvic pain, menopause, menstruation and fertility, and interviewed dozens more. (The survey was created in partnership with Origin, a pelvic floor physiotherapy company.)
All 60 companies had their ads rejected by Facebook, and about half of them said their accounts had been suspended at some point, according to the report released on Tuesday. In most cases, Facebook had tagged the ads as containing “adult content” or promoting “adult products and services”.
In its advertising policies, Facebook states that “Ads promoting sexual and reproductive health products or services, such as contraception and family planning, should target people 18 years of age or older and should not focus on the sexual pleasure ”.
On its website, Facebook provides examples of ads that are not allowed (“buy our sex toys for your adult pleasure”) and those that are (“new moisturizing lubricant to relieve daily vaginal dryness” and ” practice safe sex with our brand of condoms ”).
Yet Ms. Rotman has found numerous ads targeting men that have been accepted by Facebook although they appear to violate the policy of the social media platform: one condom ad that promises “fun”; one for the lubricant (“lotion made only for men alone”); and another for an erectile dysfunction pill that promises a “hot and humid American summer”.
“At the present time, it is arbitrary to say that a product is or is not authorized in a way that we believe has genuinely sexist overtones and a lack of understanding of health,” Ms. Rotman. She said it was “a systemic problem” and added that it is particularly damaging to small businesses.
“We welcome advertisements for sexual wellness products, but we ban nudity and have specific rules on how these products can be marketed on our platform,” wrote a spokesperson for Meta, the parent company of Facebook, in an email. “We have provided details to advertisers about the types of products and descriptions we allow in advertisements.”
The spokesperson added that Facebook was making mistakes in enforcing its advertising policies and that it had reversed several ad refusals that some of the companies mentioned in the report had suffered.
One company that has struggled to get the ads approved by Facebook is Joylux, which sells menopause health products including a device inserted into the vagina and used to strengthen the pelvic floor.
“Our consumer is a Facebook consumer,” said Colette Courtion, Managing Director of Joylux, who founded the company in 2014. “She is a 50-year-old woman. Facebook is the best place for her to be educated on topics related to menopause. Ms. Courtion added that Facebook is Joylux’s number one customer acquisition channel.
But, she said, Joylux employees have long been confused by Facebook’s policies and the way they are enforced.
“Due to the nature of our product, the way it looks,” she said, Facebook and other companies believe it to be “pornographic.”
Since 2017, Joylux’s Facebook account has been closed twice, Ms Courtion said. The company did not tell him why.
Heather Dazell, vice president of marketing at Joylux, said she discovered that “any ad going directly to our site would be automatically disqualified because of the word ‘vagina’.”
A spokesperson for Meta said Facebook isn’t totally banning words like “menopause” or “vagina,” but takes into account “how each ad is positioned.”
Over the years, Joylux has withdrawn its approach to Facebook ads. But even with the changes Joylux has made to their copy and images, many of their ads are still rejected during the initial review process. Two years ago, Joylux started working with an agency that helps the company appeal ad refusals. Usually, after the call, the announcements are approved.
But the process is time consuming and expensive, Ms Courtion said, and the resulting ads are not helpful to consumers. “We can’t show what the product looks like and we can’t say what it does,” she said.
Intimate Rose, a Kansas City, Missouri-based company that sells vaginal dilators and pelvic floor weights and rods, has faced similar issues. “We are normally always rejected,” said Adrienne Fleming, the company’s digital media manager.
She provided several examples, including an ad with a fully dressed, laughing couple (“live, laugh and love again with pelvic health products from Intimate Rose,” her copy read). Two other commercials featured videos of women discussing how Intimate Rose weights have helped them fight incontinence. Ms Fleming said all ads were rejected because Facebook classified 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 sub. used or worn clothing, nudity images, including partial nudity of children, even if not of a sexual nature.
But the policy states that “products such as lubricants or condoms, which do not focus on sexual pleasure or sexual enhancement” are allowed.
In an exchange with Facebook that she shared with The New York Times, Ms Fleming stressed that the company’s products are not intended for sex or pleasure. In response, the Facebook representative highlighted the trade policy and said the ad was correctly rejected and that he would not be able to reveal more details as they could be used to circumvent the policy in the future.
“It depends on the judgment of the reviewer,” said Aaron Wilt, one of the founders of Intimate Rose.
Businesses are not the only entities using Facebook ads. RNW Media, a non-profit organization in the Netherlands, creates online communities for social change, including Love Matters, which focuses on sexual and reproductive health and rights, and leverages Facebook ads to reach its audience.
Over a six-year period, nearly 1,800 ads that Love Matters posted on Facebook were rejected, according to a report on journalism and media sustainability that was presented to the United Nations Forum on Internet governance in 2020. Most often this was because advertisements were classified as “adult content” or as “sex toys”.
Love Matters Kenya social media director Michael Okun Oliech said Facebook recently rejected two ads it submitted to promote an “escort service.” One of them was about consent; the other was about living with HIV
He said the appeal process takes him between a week and months and that he rarely has the opportunity to speak with “a real human being”. To avoid rejection, Mr. Okun Oliech started using slang and substituting fruit emoticons for words describing certain parts of the body (a tactic that has been successful for companies like Hims, which sells Viagra).
But Charlotte Petty, human rights expert at RNW Media, worries about the consequences of being indirect or euphemistic. “There are ways to ease the censorship, but at some point we are compromising our own work,” she said.
Facebook’s advertising platform has been criticized several times in recent years. In 2018, a Washington Post investigation found that dozens of ads for LGBTQ-related events, businesses, and nonprofits were blocked by the social network because they were considered “political.” Facebook, which forces politically or socially-oriented advertisers to go through several additional layers for ad approval, called the majority of ad rejections a mistake.
In November, Meta said it would prevent advertisers from targeting people with promotions based on their engagement with content related to health, race and ethnicity, political affiliation, religion and sexual orientation, among other identifiers. The tools have been used to discriminate against specific groups and to spam people.
When it comes to sexual health and wellness companies, Ms. Rotman hopes Facebook can act quickly. “It’s a fixable problem,” she said. “It’s not as complicated as protecting democracy or the elections. It’s about finding a way to make sure that women’s health advertisements aren’t blocked. It’s just a question of Facebook deciding that’s something they’re going to fix.
Ryan mac contributed reports.