UPDATE, June 4, 11:16 a.m.: Another condom company, Momdoms, has come forward to allege that Twitter has blocked its account from advertising. Momdoms sells vintage-inspired condom tins “to be used as a tool by parents to make the sex talk a little less awkward using humor,” Momdoms co-founder Wayne Simpkins told RH Reality Check via email. Simpkins also provided a copy of Twitter’s email notifying him that his company’s account is ineligible for advertisement.
“We thought what Momdoms was tweeting was the issue but weren’t sure why,” he said. “I don’t know what is inappropriate about our website unless medical terminology is considered inappropriate. We are not sure what is inappropriate about the Lucky Bloke site either. It is about health and changing the stigma attached to purchasing and using condoms.”
“Tired of lousy condoms?” reads an ad from Lucky Bloke, which bills itself as a company of “global condom experts,” offering men a toilet paper roll test to gauge which of three condom sizes is right for them. “We’re here to break the one-size-fits-all condom myth,” the company’s website says. “If you’re wearing a condom that fits like a glove, both partners will have an enhanced, more pleasurable (and much safer) experience.”
The ad, which was intended to be a sponsored tweet, never ran. In fact, Twitter, citing internal ad policies against “adult or sexual products and services,” said that not just the ad, but Lucky Bloke’s entire Twitter account, is ineligible to participate in the Twitter ads program.
Lucky Bloke struck back with a petition urging Twitter to change its policy, alleging that the social media site puts condoms on an advertising “blacklist” that also includes hate speech, weapons, and illegal drugs.
“In the battle against sexually transmitted infections and unintended pregnancies, condoms are the first line of defense,” Melissa White, CEO and founder of Lucky Bloke, said in a statement. “If you prohibit content about condoms on such a global platform, you are restricting efforts to save lives.”
Twitter, it turns out, doesn’t prohibit condom ads as an explicit matter of policy. In fact, the company’s guidelines state that condom ads are allowed in certain countries, including the United States. However, Twitter does prohibit advertising for “contraceptives” in its “adult or sexual products and services” restrictions. It also stipulates that condom ads are only permissible if they “do not contain or link to any sexual content.”
“Lucky Bloke’s ad was rejected because it violated our policy, not because they are a condom manufacturer,” a Twitter spokesperson told RH Reality Check over email, linking to the “adult or sexual products and services” policy page. “Condom manufacturers are allowed to advertise on Twitter, along with safer sex education and HIV/STD awareness campaigns. For example, Durex (@durexlovesex) and Bedsider (@bedsider) have both advertised on Twitter.”
As Debra Hauser, executive director of the sexual health advocacy group Advocates for Youth, told RH Reality Check, “Condoms in and of themselves are used for sex. How can you disconnect them from sexual content?”
The proposed Lucky Bloke ad doesn’t seem explicit. It reads in full: “Tired of lousy condoms? LuckyBloke.com Condom Experts: shipping the world’s best condoms (world-wide) w/a 100% money-back guarantee.” Lucky Bloke’s website doesn’t contain any explicit sexual images, although it does unapologetically discuss how properly fitting condoms are both safer and can enhance sexual pleasure. The site also allows reviews from customers who occasionally use explicit sexual language to explain whether or not a product worked for them. But it’s unclear what Twitter might have been specifically objecting to in either the tweet or the website it linked to.
White said that she was careful in choosing both the tweet’s language and its audience targeting. Promoted tweets are directed at particular demographics with particular interests to ensure that users don’t feel spammed.
“I purposefully tried to sponsor a very neutral, very innocuous tweet. It didn’t even use the word ‘sex.’ Nothing that would raise any red flags,” White said. She said she specifically chose adult age ranges, even though condoms can be purchased by someone of any age, and that she targeted users who already followed accounts that were sexual in nature, like Dan Savage or Emily Morse.
The Twitter spokesperson declined to clarify how Twitter draws the line on “sexual content” in condom ads, why Lucky Bloke in particular was denied, why Lucky Bloke’s ads were in violation while Durex’s or Bedsider’s were not, or why Twitter includes unspecified forms of “contraceptives” on its forbidden list while allowing condoms.
“I did reach out to Twitter myself, and no one was interested in clarifying it for me,” White said. “I heard radio silence.”
Twitter’s decision would have also applied to any previous Lucky Bloke ad campaigns of Lucky Bloke’s, but White said it was the first ad the company had tried to run on Twitter.
Spending time investigating Twitter’s ad policies, White said, has been like “falling down a rabbit hole.”
“When they say that a sponsored tweet can’t contain or link to sexual content, they place a restriction that is really a de facto ban on condom advertising,” she said. “Because condoms are used for sex.” She added that while services like penis enlargement and breast enhancement are only “restricted,” or subject to individual review, other ads with “sexual content” are forbidden outright.
White said she considers herself not just a condom seller but also an advocate for sexual health as a social justice issue. If shoes only came in one size, she said, many people would hate wearing them. And so pleasure is a health concern: “If your condom feels good, then you’re going to wear it. And if you wear it consistently, you’re going to have a much lower risk of STIs and unintended pregnancies.”
Condoms should be taken out of Twitter’s “adult” category, White said, and filed under “health” instead. And she thinks that since advertising is often the best way for educational campaigns to reach a broader audience on large social media sites, Twitter is missing a big opportunity to help spread healthy messages about sex.
“There is nothing shameful or sinful about contraception,” said Hauser of Advocates for Youth, adding that decoupling sex from condom use is both stigmatizing and counterproductive. “When you look at … HIV campaigns in Europe when the epidemic was at its height, the ads were incredibly effective. They were either very funny or very sexy. To not have condom commercials be sexy is crazy.” Contrast this poster from the Netherlands, she said, with this “morbid” typical example of an American AIDS prevention public service ad.
“It’s impossible to do good sex ed or to help young people, or anybody, feel comfortable using contraception if you’re medicalizing it to such an extent that it’s only about disease prevention or pregnancy prevention,” Hauser said. “It’s really about healthy sexuality and intimacy and relationships. And those things are important if you’re trying to sell the idea of prevention.”