For the report, Jackie Rotman, the nonprofit organization’s founder, interviewed employees and leaders at more than 35 companies focused on issues related to women’s sexual health — including pelvic pain, menopause, menstruation and fertility — and surveyed dozens more. (The survey was created in partnership with Origin, a pelvic floor physical therapy company.)
All 60 companies had ads rejected by Facebook, and about half of them said their accounts had been suspended at some point, according to the report, which was released Tuesday. In most cases, Facebook had labeled the ads as containing “adult content” or promoting “adult products and services.”
In its advertising policies, Facebook says that “ads promoting sexual and reproductive health products or services, like contraception and family planning must be targeted to people 18 years or older and must not focus on sexual pleasure.”
On its website, Facebook provides examples of ads that are not permitted (“buy our sex toys for your adult pleasure”) and those that are (“new moisturizing lube to relieve vaginal dryness on a day-to-day basis” and “practice safe sex with our brand of condoms”).
Still, Rotman found many ads targeting men that were accepted by Facebook despite appearing to break the social media platform’s policy: an ad for condoms that promises “pleasure”; one for lubricant (“lotion made just for men’s alone time”); and another for an erectile dysfunction pill that promises a “wet hot American summer.”
“Right now, it’s arbitrary where they’ll say a product is or isn’t allowed in a way that we think has really sexist undertones and a lack of understanding about health,” Rotman said. She said that it was “a systemic problem” and added that it is especially detrimental to small businesses.
“We welcome ads for sexual wellness products but we prohibit nudity and have specific rules about how these products can be marketed on our platform,” a spokesperson for Meta, Facebook’s parent company, wrote in an email. “We have provided detail to advertisers about what kinds of products and descriptions we allow in ads.”
The spokesperson added that Facebook makes mistakes in enforcing its advertising policies and that it has overturned several ad rejections that some of the companies mentioned in the report experienced.
One company that has struggled to get ads approved by Facebook is Joylux, which sells menopausal health products, including a device that is inserted into the vagina and is used to strengthen the pelvic floor.
“Our consumer is a Facebook consumer,” said Colette Courtion, CEO of Joylux, who founded the company in 2014. “She’s a 50-year-old woman. Facebook is the best place for her to be educated on menopause-related topics.” Courtion added that Facebook is Joylux’s top customer-acquisition channel.
But, she said, Joylux employees have long been confused by Facebook’s policies and how they are applied.
“Because of the nature of our product, the look of it,” she said, Facebook and other companies believe it is “pornographic.”
Since 2017, Joylux’s Facebook account has been shut down twice, Courtion said. The company did not tell her why.
Heather Dazell, vice president of marketing at Joylux, said she has found that “any ad going directly to our site would be automatically denied because of the word ‘vagina.’ ”
A spokesperson for Meta said that Facebook does not have a blanket ban on words like “menopause” or “vagina” but considers “how each ad is positioned.”
Over the years, Joylux has pulled back its approach to Facebook ads. But even with the changes Joylux has made to its copy and imagery, many of its ads are still rejected in the initial review process. Two years ago, Joylux started working with an agency that helps the company appeal ad rejections. Usually, after the appeal, the ads are approved.
But the process is time-consuming and expensive, 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 company in Kansas City, Missouri, that sells vaginal dilators and pelvic-floor weights and wands, has faced similar issues. “We’re normally always rejected,” said Adrienne Fleming, the company’s digital media manager.
She provided several examples, including an ad with a fully clothed, laughing couple (“live, laugh, and love again with pelvic health products from Intimate Rose,” its copy reads). Two other ads featured videos of women discussing how Intimate Rose weights have helped them with incontinence. Fleming said all of the ads were rejected because Facebook categorized them as “adult products or services.”
In the adult products section of its commerce policy, Meta gives several examples of items that are banned: “sex toys, sexual enhancement products, sexually oriented adult products such as pornography, or used or worn underwear, images of nudity including partial child nudity, even if not sexual in 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, Fleming pointed out that the company’s products are not intended for intercourse or pleasure. In response, the Facebook representative pointed to the commerce policy and said that the ad was correctly rejected and that he would not be able to reveal any more details because they could be used to circumvent the policy in the future.
“It comes down to the reviewer’s judgment,” said Aaron Wilt, one of the founders of Intimate Rose.
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Businesses are not the only entities that use Facebook ads. RNW Media, a nonprofit in the Netherlands, builds 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.
During a span of six years, nearly 1,800 ads that Love Matters posted to Facebook were rejected, according to a report on the sustainability of journalism and news media that was presented at the United Nations Internet Governance Forum in 2020. Most often, the reason was that the ads were categorized as “adult content” or as “sex toys.”
Michael Okun Oliech, social media director for Love Matters Kenya, said Facebook recently rejected two ads he submitted for promoting an “escort service.” One of them was about consent; the other was about living with HIV.
He said that the appeals process takes him anywhere from a week to months and that he rarely has the opportunity to speak with “a real human being.” To avoid rejection, Okun Oliech has started using slang and substituting fruit emojis for words that describe certain body parts (a tactic that has been successful for companies such as Hims, which sells Viagra).
But Charlotte Petty, a human rights expert at RNW Media, is worried about the consequences of being indirect or euphemistic. “There are ways we can mitigate the censorship, but at one point, we’re compromising our own work,” she said.
Facebook’s ad platform has been criticized repeatedly in recent years. In 2018, a Washington Post investigation found that dozens of ads for LGBTQ-related events, companies and nonprofits were blocked by the social network because they were deemed “political.” Facebook, which requires advertisers focusing on politics or social issues to go through several additional layers for ad approval, called the majority of the ad rejections a mistake.
In November, Meta said it would stop 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 the sexual health and wellness companies, Rotman is hopeful that Facebook can act quickly. “This is a fixable problem,” she said. “It’s not as complicated as protecting democracy or elections. It’s about finding a way to make sure that women’s health ads aren’t being blocked. It’s simply a matter of Facebook deciding that this is something they’re going to fix.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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