Since Wednesday morning, when RH Reality Check 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 RH Reality Check 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 RH Reality Check 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.
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.
“We don’t sell adult sexual products or services at all,” Marie told RH Reality Check 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.”
RH Reality Check 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 RH Reality Check. “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.”