By Imogen Robinson
Facebook’s bias towards women’s health advertising was first called out back in 2015, when a slideshow advertising kGoal, a pelvic floor-strengthening device, was rejected. Facebook responded to the ads with an automated email stating: “Ads are not allowed to promote the sale or use of adult products or services, including toys, videos, publications, live shows or sexual enhancement products.”
When pushed, Facebook justified its decision on the grounds that two of the company’s other products, vibrators, were featured on the same landing page the slideshow for kGoal linked to. The bias in Facebook’s decision-making becomes apparent when you consider ads for condoms are allowed, even if the condom producer’s website contains articles such as maps of the world’s kinkiest countries.
Now, Uqora founder Jenna Ryan has yet again called out Facebook for censoring content directly related to women’s health. Uqora markets products to help with urinary tract infections (UTIs).
Speaking to Venture Beat Jenna said, “We post a lot of content about vaginal health since that’s the space we live in. But oftentimes, posts that use the word ‘vagina’ or ‘vaginal’ are flagged and removed.”
She uses the example of a post about bacterial vaginosis (BV), asking if it could be the cause of recurring UTIs. The ad was accompanied by an image of a man and a woman’s feet tangled up in bed – and it was flagged and removed. The next image they tried, of half a grapefruit, very loosely suggestive of a vulva, was also flagged and removed.
Other femtech founders have also commented on the struggles they have faced when it comes to getting their adverts approved, and The Femedic, too, faces are monthly battle trying to get adverts approved.
Recent examples include a post entitled “What can you do about menopausal mood swings?” We tried to run an ad for the post, accompanied by the copy “Have you found yourself struggling with low mood?”. The article itself contains useful information on how to deal with low mood and depression during menopause, and was written by a qualified doctor. Were we allowed to run the ad? No, because Facebook says it doesn’t allow ads that refer to the “viewer’s attributes (e.g.race, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, name)”.
Another example includes a post about thrush during pregnancy, again a post intended to and qualm women’s worries regarding what is a common issue for many pregnant women. The article, entitled “Why pregnant women are more likely to get thrush”, was run as an ad accompanied by the copy “Are you experiencing discharge or itchiness?”. It was disapproved for the same reasons as above.
The issues we, and other similar companies and organisations, face wouldn’t be as frustrating if it wasn’t for some of the dangerous and unhealthy advertising that slips through the Facebook algorithms very easily. Male health products and services seem to be approved without too much hassle, for example, even when they’re related to sexual health.
“I can share an experience we had that revealed the double standard built into Facebook’s algorithms when it comes to talking about men’s and women’s bodies,” said Lindsay Meisel, head of content at Ava (a startup that makes and sells an ovulation-tracking bracelet), again speaking to Venture Beat. A post to help women understand what their cervical mucus tells them about their health and fertility was not allowed to be boosted by Facebook. Yet when they tried to boost an article about semen from the same Facebook account, it was approved without issue.
On top of that, potentially damaging products are also easily advertised. Every single day, women between the ages of 18 and 40 are bombarded with adverts for diet products, for example.
Take this one from Noom, encountered on Facebook-owned Instagram – “A smarter way to lose weight”, being targeted at thousands of healthy-weight women during a time when more people are being diagnosed with eating disorders than ever.
Noom is described on the Google Play app store as follows: “Noom’s proven psychology-based approach identifies your deep-rooted thoughts and triggers, and builds a custom game plan to help you form healthy habits, faster”. Sounds downright scary.
Another example is Salus, a fitness brand, was recently allowed to run a sponsored post promising people they could drop two clothes sizes in 60 days. It called the programme “revolutionary” – a claim both arguable and outright untrue.
So, dieting is on the cards, even when it’s making false claims, and potentially damaging. Male health, too, is fine. Sperm? Shout about it! But women’s health? Even when containing zero mention of a woman’s sexual organs (even though there is nothing wrong with using the word vulva or vagina)? Not allowed. In a country where little, if any, help or information about our sexual and reproductive health is made widely accessible, it’s worrying that any attempt to educate women, or provide support, is shut down.
When approached for comment, a spokesperson from Facebook said they have advertising policies that outline which ads are allowed on Facebook and which are not, adding that these policies are more stringent than their Community Standards.
In this case, the spokesperson also pointed out that the Salus ad mentioned above does indeed violate their ad policy for misleading or false content and has now been disapproved. However, no comment was made on why adverts pertaining to women’s health seem particularly hard to get approved.