Twitter Faces Renewed Criticism for Condom Ad Policies

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Analysis Contraception

Twitter Faces Renewed Criticism for Condom Ad Policies

Emily Crockett

The controversy resurfaced last week when 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 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 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.”