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Facebook ad policies make it difficult for women’s health startups to advertise (2018)

Summary: Going back many years, there have been accusations that Facebook has a double standard when it comes to men’s and women’s health products in advertising.  In 2018, a VentureBeat investigation highlighted how this double standard appeared to be harming women’s health product startups.

One of the examples discussed in the article was the startup Ava, which makes an ovulation tracking bracelet for things like fertility tracking.  The company tried to post multiple ads to Facebook about ways to track health and fertility, only to find nearly all of them blocked:

Facebook told the company that the ad was blocked because it “appears to promote sexual or adult products or services.”  To test out the potential for a double standard, the company then tried to put out an ad with similar text, but focused on male fluids related to fertility.  That ad was approved.

When the reporter at VentureBeat asked Facebook about these ads, they were told that the first ad was rejected because of the image, not the text (despite Facebook telling the company it was for the text and the services being promoted).  Also, as the article notes, there are lingerie ads on Facebook that are similar in nature to the original ad posted by Ava.

Separately, when asked about the ad regarding male fertility and sperm, which Facebook had approved, the company later claimed it was a mistake and should not have been approved. However, it’s not difficult to search Facebook’s ad library and find numerous similar ads regarding male fertility.

In the VentureBeat article, Ava’s head of content, Lindsay Meisel, argues that this is a major double standard that harms women’s health-focused startups like Ava.

“So, according to Facebook’s advertising algorithms, it seems that talking about a woman’s cervical mucus is inappropriate and sexual, but talking about a man’s semen is welcomed,” Meisel said. “We can’t see this as anything other than an unfair double standard.”

Decisions to be made by Facebook:

  • How does the company distinguish between companies advertising health-focused products as opposed to those offering “adult” and sexual products that might violate Facebook’s policies?
  • What kind of review process is in place to determine whether these products and advertisements are allowed under existing policies?
  • How much effort needs to be made to make sure that there is not a double standard regarding women’s and men’s health?

Questions and policy implications to consider:

  • Does the fact that many of these companies are run by men impact the policies and lead to different standards for men’s and women’s health?
  • Is there actually a clear dividing line between some health related products and some “adult” products? If it is more of a spectrum, how can companies adequately review where in that spectrum products fall and write their policies accordingly?

Resolution: There are many similar stories about Facebook and other companies (but Facebook especially) struggling with this double standard regarding advertisements.  As just one example, the author Sarah Lacy found that Facebook rejected ads for her book, “The Uterus Is a Feature, Not a Bug” because the word “uterus” was deemed “inappropriate” for advertising.

Written by The Copia Institute, May 2021

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