Our lives, and by extension, our access to new ideas, are inextricably intertwined with social media. And, as we all now know, social media and tech platforms rely on ads.
An interesting dilemma has thus appeared: we expect our social media to reflect our values because tech companies like Google, Twitter, YouTube and Facebook actively present themselves as benevolent. Because of this, we also expect our values to be reflected in the ads we are served on those platforms, too.
In September 2020, Facebook banned an ad by period underwear brand Modibodi, which used the colour red to represent period blood.
In February 2021: Facebook banned an ad called ‘The Boob Life’ by infant care brand Tommee Tippee. The ad, which focused on breastfeeding, showed nipples.
Back in February, B&T spoke with Tommee Tippe’s marketing manager Vaness Gonzalez, who said: “a Facebook representative told us that even though it may be an ad referencing breastfeeding, that they don’t allow nudity in any form and that the creative should be revisited so as not to cause negative interactions or experiences.”
“If you’re offended by a mother feeding their baby then just look away. Censoring [the ad] only serves to reinforce archaic attitudes towards mothers and women — advertisers have an opportunity to change that.”
A spokesperson for Tommee Tippee confirmed to B&T that this version of The Boob Life, which depicted nipples, was never approved by Facebook as an ad.
At the time, a Facebook spokesperon told the Daily Mail: “This campaign is important and we applaud the work Tommee Tippee is doing to support new mums in their breastfeeding journey. We allow all posts of breastfeeding on Facebook and Instagram, but we do not allow adverts showing visible nipples. Ads are governed by a stricter set of policies because they receive paid distribution to appear in people’s feeds, and that’s why these were removed.”
Fast-forward to October 2021. AWWA, a New Zealand-based period-care brand created a new campaign depicting two housemates on their periods.
In the minute-and-a-half long video, one housemate is seen with dried blood on their underwear. One is seen rinsing out their period underwear, as blood runs into the sink. Another shot shows one showering with a period.
To show these things is not sensationalist, it is realistic. Perhaps it would shock someone who has never seen a period before, but to pretend that bodily functions don’t happen: that periods don’t involve blood, or that breastfeeding doesn’t involve nipples, is to censor the bodies that perform those functions.
But the question appears to be, how visible should these bodily functions be in ads?
In October 2021, Facebook banned AWWA’s period ad. Like the cases of Tommee Tippee and Modibodi, it cited a breach of community standards.
Both Facebook and AWWA have confirmed that the full, uncensored video is allowed on the brand’s social media, both its Facebook and Instagram pages. But, as a paid-for-ad, it violated the platform’s Community Guidelines, colloquially referred to as the ‘shock and scare’ policy.
Facebook is upfront about the fact that it has strict commercial guidelines. Antonia Sanda, head of communications for Facebook ANZ said to B&T in a statement: “Encouraging open discussion about the issues that women face is important to me personally and to our values at Facebook.”
“We know these issues are complicated, and our team has been working closely with AWWA to advise how to run this campaign on our platforms. The AWWA campaign video is running in full on the AWWA Facebook and IG page. A cut down version of the video is also running as paid content on our platform.”
Speaking to B&T, though, AWWA’s co-founder Michele Wilson confirmed that the post hadn’t been removed from the brand’s Instagram and Facebook pages. But, she pointed out, because it has been banned as an ad, the video will only be seen by people who already followed the brand.
She also denied Facebook’s assertions that they had approved a cut-down version of the ad. The ad she believes Facebook is referring to is one the company made as a “pisstake”, where AWWA covered up the imagery of blood with comments from their followers praising the ad’s depiction of periods.
“Everywhere where the blood was shown, we put over a quote from one of our customers that have said how beautiful the ad is,” Wilson explained.
“That’s been approved, and I can only assume that that’s the cut-down version that Facebook says they’ve approved, but the ad actually makes no sense for anyone that watches it.”
Both Facebook and AWWA confirm that they have discussed the ad.
“I actually had a Zoom meeting with two people, quite high up representatives at Facebook,” Wilson said.
Wilson continued: “[they] said that although they agree with us and they think it should be shown, they think it’s really important, they personally think it should be shown, the internal policies team said no, it’s not gonna happen.”
“They said that the only way it can be shown is if we remove blood from the pad and blood from the back of the underwear.”
“We said, ‘we can’t do that, that’s the point of the ad – to show the blood’.”
And here lies the real dispute. That the content is important, or well-shot, or powerful is not the issue. The issue is whether it is acceptable as an ad.
An earlier version of this article was titled: Why is Facebook so determined to pretend that people don’t have bodily functions?
Perhaps instead, it should say: Bodily functions, particularly those of people with uteruses, have been hidden and used as a tool of ostracism for years. What role should a powerful media platform like Facebook advertising play in changing ideas?
Last year, when Modibodi’s ad was banned for using red liquid to represent blood – a decision Facebook later reversed – Modibodi CEO and founder Kristy Chong said, “our aim for this film was to open people’s minds by taking the stigma out of what is a perfectly natural bodily function for women. It was not made to be deliberately sensational or provocative, but to show the very real and natural side of periods.”
“We’ve used red to represent blood from day one and ‘The New Way to Period’ shows the real side of menstruation and that there are better options available than eco-damaging disposable pads, liners and tampons.”
The responses from Facebook in each of these scandals has been conciliatory. Members from the Facebook team have spoken to the press about personally loving the ad, or acknowledging its importance, while ultimately coming back to the same point: that they violate Community Guidelines.
Before Facebook accepted Modibodi’s ad, Naomi Shepherd, Facebook’s director for ANZ said: “I love the video that Modibodi has created to normalise periods, encourage discussion, and promote their underwear range. The full 60 second video is available to view on their Facebook page and Instagram account.”
“Our Community Standards outline what is and isn’t allowed on our free services, however, when it comes to ads on Facebook we have a higher set of standards for what content can be included in an ad.”
Facebook’s community guidelines say: “ads must not promote shocking, sensational, gory or excessively violent content that may shock or scare viewers.”
Here lies the crux of the dispute, where Facebook and the brands whose ads have been banned disagree – whether a period or a nipple is shocking, sensational, or confronting when it is promoted on people’s feeds.
For Facebook, there is an important difference between what is allowed on a platform and what is allowed in an ad. It points out that the user, by and large, chooses to see what is on their News Feed. Users have far less control over what ads are fed to them.
Really, though, there is a more central dichotomy at play.
It may be true that an ad depicting period blood could shock, upset, or offend someone it was served to. However, it is undoubtedly also true that one of the only ways to normalise things like periods, or breastfeeding, is to show them. That means showing them to everyone, not just to the people they affect.
Periods, and the blood that comes with them, will continue to be seen as shameful when advertising platforms prioritise the hypothetical user who could be offended, over the hypothetical user who could be empowered by a video like AWWA’s randomly appearing as an ad on their feed.
Facebook’s adult content rules are strict. They define adult content as including “nudity, depictions of people in explicit or suggestive positions, or activities that are overly suggestive or sexually provocative.”
“Sexually suggestive content includes nudity or implied nudity, excessive visible skin or cleavage and images focused on body parts like abs, buttocks or chests, even if “not explicitly sexual in nature”.
Each brand argues that its content, while maybe breaking from the norm of advertising, should not be defined as explicit, adult, or offensive.
“Period care brands have shied away from the truth of menstruation,” said Wilson. “And the giants like Facebook have been kind of part of that as well.”
“All of the research that we can find that we know how important it is that advertising does show girls and children the picture of a real period,” she continued.
“The reality is the emotions, the difficulties. Showing our period product in the way that it’s intended to be used, I think, is really important here.”
She cited traditional, prevalent period marketing strategies, like kittens playing with tampons, the infamous blue liquid, and the boyfriend covered in pads, pretending to be a robot.
“Half of the population almost, of the world, have their period and there’s no wonder we have period poverty and we have shame. Because when someone gets their period [it’s] like shock horror, what is this thing that’s happening? I thought I was supposed to be dancing around with my girlfriends.”
As consumers, our expectations of ads – particularly those marketing ‘taboo’ products – have changed. And, ultimately, social media creates our norms. Of course people want more from it.
Back in April this year, Facebook’s Q1 figures showed a total revenue of US$26.17 billion, a 48 per cent increase from the year before. At the time, Facebook explained that massive number in as due to the money it makes in ads. Ad prices on the platform have increased 30 per cent year-on-year.
Advertising is unquestionably reliant on social media. And social media – all of it, not just Facebook – has relied on a veneer of social progress and democratised ideas to become the cultural force it is today.
What we are seeing in examples like AWWA’s is that the genuinely revolutionary potential of social media to counter decades-entrenched ideas about periods ( and by extension, certain bodies) does not translate into what it allows as ads.
And, when that is the case, there is a limit to how truly progressive social media is.
What is worse? Showing an ad of dried blood to someone who may be offended, or refusing to promote an ad that is truthful and unprecedented?
That decision, ultimately, can only be made by Facebook (which has, this week, renamed as Meta). For the moment, they appear to be sticking to the former.
What this all comes back to is the fixed idea that, in Wilson’s words, a period is “secret, shameful, and should be kept under wraps.”
“But there’s nothing shocking about it, and as long as we continue this idea that it’s shocking and disturbing, the more we’re going to keep having problems with our women, with people with periods, with non-binary people with periods, with trans people with periods.”
“It’s something that needs to be spoken about openly.”
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