By Mary Emily O’Hara
If you open Instagram, it often doesn’t take long for you to find an ad in either your feed or Stories roll. But some ads, it seems, aren’t seeing the light of day — and for wholly baffling reasons.
The feminist newsletter Salty, which also publishes sex and dating-focused content, revealed on July 9 that it had tried to run ads on Instagram featuring images of its latest magazine cover, but was denied by the platform — with a message saying “we don’t allow ads for escort services.” Readers were understandably incensed; the newsletter is not an escort service, and the images in question showed fully-clothed queer and trans people of color. The implication ignited rage in the community over how frequently Black trans femmes are stereotyped as sex workers.
“There are biases and assumptions built into the algorithms that are designed to silence us,” Salty’s team wrote on an Instagram comment, linking the rules to recently-passed federal anti-trafficking laws known as FOSTA/SESTA legislation which led social media platforms to restrict users from posting sexual content. And in a blog post on Salty’s website, founder Claire Fitzsimmons noted that FOSTA (the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act) has pushed sex workers out of the digital world almost entirely. (Ironically, lawmakers who introduced and passed the laws argued that these laws would “protect” women and LGBTQ+ people.) Instagram has since approved the ads in question, telling MTV News in a statement Friday: “Every week, we review thousands of ads–and at times we make mistakes. We made mistakes here, and we apologize to Salty. We have reinstated the ads, and will continue to investigate this case to prevent it from happening again.”
What happened to Salty, as it turns out, is far from one outlying incident. Several LGBTQ-owned, women-owned, and sex-positive brands confirmed to MTV News that they had also tried to run ads on Instagram and Facebook and had been similarly censored by the platforms. All of the companies provided MTV News with documentation of rejected ad images, denial messages, emails, and other proof that they were unable to run ads for reasons they felt were unfair or inappropriate.
Take Morgasm for example: The company describes itself as a “gender-free, all-inclusive streetwear fashion brand with non-binary collections for adults and kids.” Founder Morgan Burton (hence the catchy name) and her partner Tara O’Callaghan have received denial messages from Instagram that say the name of the company is considered profanity. (In contrast, the makeup brand Nars regularly advertises its tentpole Orgasm collection on its popular Instagram; MTV News reached out to Nars to ask whether it has encountered censorship due to the product name but did not immediately receive a response.)
What’s more, Morgasm’s Shopify account has been blocked from selling directly to customers from the brand’s Instagram account. When Shopify, a popular e-commerce platform for online stores, was told it was not allowed to market Morgasm’s line on Instagram, it relayed the message to the clothing company in emails O’Callaghan shared with MTV News. Morgasm tried to appeal the decision through both Shopify and Instagram, but has not been successful.
“We have explained to [Instagram] we are a fashion brand and not a sex brand,” O’Callaghan told MTV News on Friday. “Shopify has been extremely helpful, has contacted Instagram on our behalf numerous times to no avail. However, Instagram will not approve us, even after our initial request and two appeals a few months apart.”
Morgasm has been able to run some ads on Instagram — but the clothing brand is not allowed to enable direct shopping from those ads or from its own posts, the way that other brands do. And it’s costing the queer-owned fashion company dearly.
“Since we were rejected by Instagram, the platform has enabled shopping from Instagram itself, costing us even more on sales since we can't capitalize on the new feature,” said O’Callaghan. She said the company is “unable to tag the products in posts and make it shoppable,” and, as a result, they tend to avoid running ads on an increasingly valuable platform. “We don't see almost any return on investment from the ad spend,” she added.
While such arbitrary and misclassified blocks can feel like some kind of absurd mistake, similar denials have left queer publications and brands wondering what is or isn’t allowed. Thomas Brunskill, creator of the British LGBTQ+ project Mundane zine, told MTV News that Instagram rejected an ad for a queer t-shirt line, citing “inappropriate language,” which was Brunskill thinks was triggered by the word “queer” appearing in the ad. El Champ, which bills itself as “the first health and fitness mag for the queer collective,” said it has experienced similar censorship. Founder Matthew Dempsey told MTV News that when the magazine tried to run an ad on Facebook and Instagram featuring a somewhat demure photo of a partial torso, he received a message saying the ad violated Facebook's Advertising Policies under Section 8 (Adult Products and Services) and Section 9 (Adult Content.) Dempsey tried replacing the torso with a photo of a basketball hoop, and was still rejected.
“I used what I considered a safe option for the ad. This was also rejected for promoting ‘sex toys or adult products.’ I knew there was a problem in Facebook's system for reviewing ads as the image was of just a basketball hoop,” said Dempsey. He added that he has since been able to get an ad approved, but only after tweaking ad settings in regards to the target audience: “The only real difference was the ‘defined’ target audience. I believe the ‘interests’ filter used to target a market is a tool to flag content clearly aimed at reaching the queer community.”
“We have ad policies that help foster a positive, inclusive and safe environment for the community,” a Facebook spokesperson told MTV News when reached for comment. (Facebook has owned and operated Instagram since 2012, and both platforms share the same essential terms of service in regards to appropriate content.) The spokesperson said that many of the brands MTV News spoke to do run ads on Instagram — but added that some of those ads had been denied due to “policy violations” around profanity or nudity. It’s not clear what the threshold for either category is.
“We recognize that at times we make mistakes when reviewing ads but we are committed to making things right – it is never our intention to silence marginalized voices,” the spokesperson said. “We will continue to investigate these cases to improve how we enforce our ad policies.”
When asked in a follow-up email whether Instagram and Facebook maintain a list of unacceptably profane terms, and whether words like “queer” or “orgasm” are among them, the company did not respond.
Trigger filters are one thing; other companies have been told they can’t run ads because the very product they’re marketing is altogether banned from advertising on the platform in a way they say is downright sexist. On March 8, the Los Angeles-based sexual health brand Voodoo tried to run Instagram and Facebook ads promoting a special International Women’s Day sale; the ads didn’t use images of any products, only an illustration of a women’s symbol with the phrase “we cherish you.” The company creates sex toys that are marketed especially to women and the LGBTQ+ community, and says its mission is to remove stigma and shame around sexual wellness. But it was told both platforms ban “ads that promote adult products or services such as sex toys, sexual enhancement products, or sexual videos and publications.”
Voodoo brand manager Sally Cotching finds that puzzling, given that the platforms do allow ads for erectile dysfunction medication, which would seemingly be a direct violation of the platforms’ ban on sexual enhancement products, as well as the advertisement of prescription drugs.
“It is frustrating for us when brands like Hims can promote sexual performance-enhancing products for men — we support this, by the way, they are a great brand — yet a female-focused brand designed for women to enjoy themselves and close the 'pleasure gap' cannot, when men report reaching climax during sex far more often than women,” Cotching told MTV News.
A Facebook spokesperson told MTV News that ads aren’t allowed to name specific prescription drugs, but companies can market to people based on certain conditions. So you can’t run an ad saying “buy Viagra here,” but you can run an ad that says “here’s a way to help erectile dysfunction.” This approach would not work for Voodoo’s products.
Cotching pointed out that many of Hims’s ads rely on phallic references, which served as the topic of much contention when sex toy company Dame sued the New York City MTA for denying its ads but allowing droopy cacti in Hims ads that clearly served as stand-ins for penises. “It's a double standard we see repeatedly,” Cotching said. “Women taking ownership of their pleasure is still seen as taboo and makes people uncomfortable — yet men taking a pill solely for the purpose of enhancing his sexual performance is seen as standard.”
When Amy Nichol started her job as social media manager for the techie-friendly sex toy company Lovense, she tried to get creative by instead promoting the company’s blog posts, but says that even those were denied.
Moreover, Lovense’s entire Instagram account was recently disabled without explanation, which made Nichols nervous about trying to run ads again. While the company is committed to working within each platform’s terms of service, Nichols believes “it is time that a dialogue is opened about what makes sexual pleasure such a taboo subject and why huge platforms like Instagram and Facebook are so against it.”
And even if you are able to post your ads, there’s no promise they’ll stay up for the allotted amount of time. Body painter Ayja Lanay tried to promote photos of her work, she says the ads ran for a couple of days before being taken down for violating nudity rules. Lanay tried to run a second series of ads after blurring out the (painted) nipples in the torso photos, but was denied again. The artist tells MTV News that she paid for the ads but also hasn’t been able to get her money back.
“I’m not going to stop promoting my artwork. I will not stop posting my artwork,” said Lanay, who added that she felt “harassed” by Instagram and that the platform has threatened to delete her account. “It will only make me go harder as an artist because I’m not only doing this for myself, I’m doing it for so many women who message me and thank me for my bravery.”
Even illustrators who don’t post any photographs at all have felt the burn of what seems to be a generally anti-sex ethos targeting women in particular on the platforms. Exotic Cancer, a popular account that posts blithe cartoons about Tinder profiles and strip club customers in an unmistakable, candy-colored style, was deleted at over 300,000 followers. Readers of the comics came to the account’s aid, successfully demanding that Instagram reinstate it. But the illustrator behind Exotic Cancer has since said in interviews that her account has been “shadowbanned,” or subtly hidden from the feeds of its followers. And like many Instagram artists that find themselves subject to frequent takedowns, Exotic Cancer maintains a second backup account in case the main account gets deleted again.
Illustrator, comedian, and exotic dancer Jacq The Stripper has been featured in Forbes, Cosmopolitan, Buzzfeed, and more — but she recently discovered, with the help of her 162,000 Instagram followers, that her profile no longer pops up when searched for (it’s true, we tried it). Around a month ago she tweeted that the “swipe up” she used to sell her popular clothing, art, and book products feature in Instagram stories had simply disappeared from her account.
According to Salty’s founder, this kind of censorship fueled by puritanism is not new. While certain heavy-handed policies have increased since FOSTA/SESTA — and extend far beyond impacting online sex workers — Fitzsimmons argues that there’s a flaw in the code itself.
“It would appear that algorithms are written with inbuilt bias that reflects the needs and desires of the creators of our digital world: primarily cis, straight, white men,” Fitzsimmons told MTV News on Friday. “This bias ensures that femme, trans, plus-sized, disabled, queer bodies (particularly queer people of color) are more highly regulated.”