News Sexual Health

More Companies Speak Out About Twitter Censoring Condom, Sexual Health Info in Ads

Emily Crockett

Since Wednesday morning, when Rewire reported on a condom company that had its account barred from advertising on Twitter, three other companies have come forward to allege that Twitter censored their ads about condoms or sexual health information.

Read more about Twitter banning businesses from advertising contraception on Twitter here.

Since Wednesday morning, when Rewire reported on a condom company that had its account barred from advertising on Twitter, three other companies have come forward to allege that Twitter censored their ads about condoms or sexual health information.

Momdoms, a company that sells vintage-inspired condom tins to help parents inject humor into the sex talk, told Rewire that the company’s account, like that of condom vendor Lucky Bloke, had also been barred from advertising on Twitter because it violated Twitter’s confusing “adult or sexual products and services” policy. That policy allows condom ads so long as they don’t contain or link to “sexual content,” and flatly prohibits ads for “contraception.”

Jenelle Marie, founder of The STD Project—which describes itself as a “progressive movement eradicating STD stigma by facilitating and encouraging awareness, education, and acceptance through story-telling and resource recommendations”—told Rewire that her story was similar to Lucky Bloke’s. After receiving numerous promotional emails from Twitter encouraging her to begin an ad campaign, Marie decided to try it out in October of 2013—and promptly received an email from Twitter saying that not only had her campaign been rejected, but that her account was ineligible to participate in Twitter ad campaigns. The reason given was violation of Twitter’s adult or sexual products and services policy, as was the case with Momdoms and Lucky Bloke.

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Marie recalls (she said the original tweet is no longer showing on her account) that the text of the offending tweet read, “STD? It’s OK! We can help. The STD Project, promoting awareness, education, and acceptance. http://www.thestdproject.com.”

“We don’t sell adult sexual products or services at all,” Marie told Rewire in an email. “The only service I offer now is a consultation for those who are recently diagnosed [with STDs] or have questions—however, that wasn’t something that was available on our website until a month ago. So, at the time they made that decision, we weren’t selling anything directly at all.”

Rewire also heard from a company that still advertises with Twitter, and is happy with the results of those advertisements. But that company, the “online birth control support network” Bedsider, has still experienced frustrating pushback over seemingly innocuous sexual health-related content.

A Twitter spokesperson cited Bedsider specifically to show that Twitter doesn’t prohibit condom manufacturers or safer sex campaigns from advertising.

“We were mentioned in the article as being an advertiser, and I think that deserves some elaboration,” Larry Swiader, director of digital media at the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, which operates Bedsider, told Rewire. “We are an advertiser—and we are subject to similar restrictions. We’ve struggled with the same issues [as Lucky Bloke].”

Bedsider has a mission to help women find and consistently use the right birth control method for them. The site uses a breezy, accessible tone to help gain and keep followers.

Swiader said that when Bedsider was created five years ago, it sought to answer one simple question: Why are people not getting their birth control right? Its staff interviewed women and showed them the kinds of medicalized, black-and-white public health brochures about safer sex and birth control that are typically found in clinics or doctor’s offices. “They said, no, this is not something I would spend two seconds with,” Swiader said. And thus Bedsider’s more conversational approach was born.

“Our tweets on Bedsider can be pretty fun and flirty and sex-positive,” Swiader said. “That’s all a part of our goal to help people consider their sexual health by changing the often negative associations with these issues.”

But Twitter, it seems, considers “sex-positive” to be the same thing as “sexually explicit.” Bedsider can be as fun and flirty as it wants on its Twitter feed, but promoted tweets are a very different issue.

“They’ve asked us not to talk about sex in a way that is overtly pleasurable, if you will,” Swiader said. “It’s a funny request because sex is pleasurable, it should be, and it’s healthy when it is. So it puts people in a bind, especially somebody like Melissa [White, CEO of Lucky Bloke], whose business model is built around the idea that people disassociate pleasure from condoms, and that’s part of the reason people don’t use them.”

Bedsider’s account was entirely barred from advertising twice, Swiader said: once for about a week in the spring of 2013, and once for two or three months starting around the end of that year.

After the first blocking incident, Bedsider was allowed to promote tweets again—but only to people who already followed the account. “Which seems like it defeats the purpose, right?” Swiader said. “But our experience was that even that was worthwhile, even just to get tweets in front of our followers who would then retweet and reach more people.” And after the second block, Bedsider was allowed to promote tweets to all users once again.

Both blocks came after someone at Twitter found one or more promoted tweets, or the website content they linked to, objectionable. One “adult sexual content” violation was for this tweet advertising Bedsider’s weekly advice column: “‘Keep the fights clean and the sex dirty.’ and other celebrity sex advice in this week’s #FriskyFriday http://bedsider.org/frisky_fridays/192

“They’re not comfortable with our content in the Frisky Friday column, which talks openly about great sex, and birth control as a part of great healthy sex,” Swiader said.

But another, more innocuous tweet also got the boot. Swiader didn’t have the original text handy but recalled it reading, “99% of women in the U.S. use birth control. Is it time for you?” That rejection wasn’t for the tweet itself, he said, but rather because the tweet linked to Bedsider’s landing page, which itself links to the Frisky Friday column in its footer.

In other words, content Twitter finds objectionable can neither be in the page the tweet links to, nor in any links accessible from that page. Content like Frisky Friday has to be more than one click away for Twitter to approve the tweet. So now, Bedsider’s site hides the Frisky Friday link in the homepage footer if it sees a user is coming there from Twitter.

“It’s a little silly, frankly,” Swiader said. “But at the same time, we’re gaining followers, and we’re able to communicate to those new followers that we have all that other material.”

Bedsider has been luckier than Lucky Bloke in that it actually got feedback on why its tweets were unacceptable. The difference between Bedsider’s situation and Lucky Bloke’s, Swiader said, was that Bedsider worked closely with a nonprofit account management team at Twitter. The team understood Bedsider’s mission, and it was that advocacy that got Bedsider back in Twitter’s good graces. Lucky Bloke, on the other hand, had no internal advocate and was met with silence when White reached out to Twitter asking why her business had been blocked.

Swiader was emphatic that despite the restrictions and headaches, it’s still well worth it for Bedsider to advertise on Twitter. He also said that while he’s not happy about the restrictions, he can see where Twitter is coming from: The site is concerned about exposing minors to sexual content, about receiving complaints from more prudish users, and about generally not annoying users with ads they wouldn’t want to see in their timelines.

But he confesses he’s baffled that Twitter ever allowed Bedsider to advertise at all, given the site’s ban on advertising for contraceptives under its adult content policy. And he still finds Twitter’s general attitude frustrating, precisely because he believes it to be an ideal channel for people, young people especially, to learn about healthy sexuality. Bedsider’s target demographic of 18- to 29-year-olds spends a lot of time on Twitter, and has a lot of conversations there about sex and birth control already.

“We could put out the blandest statement, the blandest tweet, but that’s not what our brand is about, and that’s not even what Twitter is about,” Swiader said. “There is a lot of sexually explicit talk on Twitter, and a lot of conversations that would benefit from smart interjections, whether they are organic or promoted tweets.”

“I think people’s health can improve if we get this right.”

News Sexual Health

Twitter Changes Sexual Health Ad Policy, Reinstates Condom Retailer’s Account

Emily Crockett

Twitter has updated its rules that blocked many advertisements for condoms and sexual health. And condom retailer Lucky Bloke, the first company to speak out about the issue, finally had its advertising ban lifted after nine months of complaints and public campaigns to get the policy changed.

Several condom companies and sexual health campaigns last year said Twitter had blocked them from advertising about condoms and safer sex. The reason for the blocks appeared to be Twitter’s confusing, inconsistent rules about “sexual content” in ads.

Rewire has learned Twitter has tweaked those rules. And condom retailer Lucky Bloke, the first company to speak out about the issue, finally had its advertising ban lifted Monday morning after nine months of complaints and public campaigns to get the policy changed.

“We’ve got great news!” reads a form email sent from Twitter to Melissa White, Lucky Bloke’s CEO. “We recently adjusted our advertising policies, and are happy to say that you can now use Twitter Ads campaigns.”

White works to educate the public about how proper condom fit leads to greater pleasure and more consistent use. Her particular sexual health message requires discussing sexual pleasure, which she says is also a better strategy for sexual health campaigns than sterile doctor’s room images.

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But an innocuous-seeming promoted tweet last year fell afoul of Twitter’s ad policies, probably because Lucky Bloke’s website includes frank discussions about how the right condom size makes sex more pleasurable.

Lucky Bloke wasn’t alone in being banned for seemingly non-explicit material, as Rewire reported. And the issue of sexual health campaigns being stymied by social media—not just on Twitter, but on other sites like Facebook and YouTube—saw fresh media attention last week in The Atlantic.

A Twitter spokesperson told Rewire that the change to the company’s ad policy for “adult or sexual products and services” was launched in mid-January.

“Ads for non-prescription contraceptive products such as condoms and spermicides, and ads for personal lubricants, now fall under our health and pharmaceutical products and services policy,” the spokesperson said.

That’s a welcome change for advocates who were frustrated by the stigma that the old policy seemed to show—marginalizing condoms as “adult” material instead of an important public health issue.

The new policy also clarifies some confusing language that seemed to ban ads for “contraceptives” while still allowing some ads for condoms—a contraceptive method by any definition. Now the policy lists birth control pills and emergency contraception as “restricted,” or subject to review by Twitter, just like any other pharmaceutical product.

But the policy still prohibits “sexual content” in ads or linked material for sexual health awareness or condoms. That was the language that seemed to give companies and campaigns the most trouble, and the language that advocates found baffling. How do you talk about sexual health in a way that actually reaches people without also talking about sex?

White told Rewire that she is “incredibly encouraged” by Twitter’s policy changes and her account reinstatement, but Twitter and other social media companies still have “dangerous and antiquated” policies about reproductive health.

“However, to have them budge at all shows critical progress can be made. And for that we should celebrate a little,” White said. “We invite tech giants like Twitter, that have this incredible opportunity, to join us and work together to end sexual health stigma and censorship for good.”

Analysis Contraception

Twitter Faces Renewed Criticism for Condom Ad Policies

Emily Crockett

The controversy resurfaced last week when Washingtonian.com reported that Washington, D.C.’s Department of Health had similar trouble with posting condom ads to Twitter.

Read more about Twitter banning businesses from advertising contraception on Twitter here.

Twitter came under criticism this summer for allegedly censoring ads for condoms or sexual health information, even though the company’s policy allows those kinds of ads. Rewire reported in June about four companies and organizations that claimed Twitter had not only censored their ads, but also blocked their accounts from advertising. 

The controversy resurfaced last week when Washingtonian.com reported that Washington, D.C.’s Department of Health had similar trouble, and Rewire has learned that Lucky Bloke, the company that started a petition over these issues, still can’t advertise on Twitter to promote safe condom use.

D.C.’s health department wanted to advertise its “Rubber Revolution” free condom distribution program with “promoted tweets” on its @FreeCondomsDC Twitter account. Doing so could increase the Twitter account’s reach four-fold, said Michael Kharfen, director of the department’s HIV/AIDS office, in a written statement. “The more people we reach, the more people can get important free health information and resources,” he added. 

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But an automated reply from Twitter said the tweet violated Twitter’s ad policy, and as with Lucky Bloke and other groups, Rubber Revolution had its account barred from advertising. Unlike Lucky Bloke, though, the account got its advertising capabilities back after just about a day—a few hours after Washingtonian.com inquired about why it had been refused.

“I appreciate the media calls to Twitter that resulted in its decision to not ban our essential public health messages,” Kharfen said via email to Rewire. “We are also appreciative of Twitter in acknowledging that the work we are doing benefits Twitter users.”

“It is a standard practice for our ads policy team to review all ads that run on our platform,” a Twitter spokesperson told Rewire via email. “If they find that the ad violates our policies, the advertiser will be notified and not allowed to advertise until they remove the offending Tweet or content.” 

The sticking point with all of these bans, temporary or otherwise, has been Twitter’s rather nonspecific prohibition against “sexual content” in advertisements for condoms or safer sex campaigns. Confusingly, Twitter also prohibits ads for “contraceptives”—a category that, by most accounts, includes condoms. Plus, the rule against “sexual content” in condom ads doesn’t just cover the text and image in the would-be promoted tweet itself—Twitter’s spokesperson said that an advertiser’s website can’t contain or link to objectionable content either.

Bedsider, an online source for birth control information that has had success advertising with Twitter, only discovered the website part of the policy when it got temporarily booted from advertising last year. An innocuous tweet about how 99 percent of U.S. women use birth control was flagged not for racy language but for its link to Bedsider’s home page, which featured a link in its footer to the sex advice column “Frisky Friday.” Bedsider finally got around that issue by sending users linked from Twitter to a version of the site that hid the “Frisky Friday” link. 

Melissa White, CEO of Lucky Bloke, takes issue with the whole concept of banning “sexual content” in condom ads, since condoms involve sex by definition—and if you’re not allowed to discuss sexual pleasure, she says, people will stick to their negative stereotypes about how condoms don’t feel good, and they will be less likely to use them. She sees promotion of proper condom use, including discussions of pleasure, as a sexual health and social justice issue. White’s company sells condoms in three different size categories because she says a better-fitting condom both feels better and is safer. “Educating around condom fit and pleasure works,” White told Rewire. “When people enjoy condoms they use them more effectively and consistently.”

White didn’t know when she started her #Tweet4Condoms campaign (nor did Rewire in its initial reporting) that Twitter’s standard practice was to immediately ban accounts upon submission of one ill-received tweet. The response seemed out of proportion to her, she said—wouldn’t it make more sense just to reject the tweet, explain why, and ask the user to try again? 

The Twitter spokesperson said that there’s recourse for people with suspended ad accounts—just contact the ads policy team through the “Help” button in their ad account: “There, they can describe their issue (for example, ‘I was previously rejected per X policy, and have removed the offending content. Can you re-review my ad copy and website’). If the revised Tweet and website content then abides by our policy, the advertiser will be able to run ads.”

Indeed, The STD Project, a sexual health group that Rewire spoke to in June about being blocked, has now had its account reinstated through that process. But White’s repeated attempts to reach out to Twitter when her ad account was first blocked months ago were met with silence. “I have reached out to [Twitter CEO] Dick Costolo, as well as their Ads Policy team, on numerous occasions. Their lack of response over several months has been frustrating,” she said.

She finally did get a response from one employee recently, but said that response amounted to “cutting and pasting their policy—the one I am already quite familiar with.” When White asked for an actual contact to work with and help make Lucky Bloke’s account eligible, the employee directed her to fill out a Help ticket online. 

White also couldn’t get a straight answer about which content exactly was inappropriate, either from her website or her tweet (which seemed innocuous—”Tired of lousy condoms?”). The response was that “sexual content” violations could include “nudity, partial nudity, sexual aids and toys, as well as adult/sexual language.” White wrote back that Lucky Bloke’s site includes no nudity (indeed, no pictures of people at all), no sexual aids or toys, and only “sexual language” that’s specific to condom use. The material on her site is even less explicit than what she’s seen from other Twitter advertisers, she said. Durex, which has advertised on Twitter through one of its Spanish-language accounts, also sells sex toys and writes about better orgasms, sexual positions, and kink. And the D.C. health department’s Rubber Revolution website contains a somewhat explicit drawing of how to put a condom on a penis.

White stressed that these examples show inconsistency on Twitter’s part, not any fault of Durex’s or Rubber Revolution’s, and that the content on their sites is relevant to their work. “I applaud any time that a company is able to advertise sexual health messaging,” White said. “I simply want the same opportunity for the rest of us.” 

Even groups allowed to advertise with Twitter have at some point gotten on the wrong side of the company’s seemingly inconsistent, confusing policy—like Rubber Revolution, or like Bedsider, which a Twitter spokesperson specifically pointed to as proof that Twitter doesn’t ban sexual health ads even though Twitter has twice blocked Bedsider’s ad account in the past.

If Help tickets and poorly clarified policies are all Twitter has to offer her, White said, “it remains an enduring, de facto ban for Lucky Bloke.”

Account blocks also intimidate users who don’t realize they can, at least in theory, do something to get their ad accounts reinstated. Jenelle Marie, founder of The STD Project, spoke to Rewire in June about having her account blocked. When Rewire contacted her again for this piece asking if her status had changed, or if she had reached out to Twitter, she said she decided to try reaching out using the Help button—”I figured it can’t hurt, right?” she said. And in less than 24 hours, her account had been reinstated.

But that wasn’t her attitude when she was first blocked. The dire-looking red “Account Ineligible” error message told her to send a message using the Help button for “any questions,” but didn’t volunteer that this is the best way to get a block reversed. She didn’t think reaching out would do any good, and felt that her voice wouldn’t matter as a small organization.

“I believe in picking my battles,” she said. “I didn’t think I’d have much sway, and I figured, if they didn’t want to support progressive organizations such as my own, there were people who would, so I’d rather put my energy into reaching out instead of fighting back.”