How do you market a product on social media that you can’t describe, post images of or even name?
Well, you can’t, according to the founders of women’s health brands and PR pros. At least not effectively.
A three-year study by the nonprofit Center for Intimacy Justice shows women’s health ads are disproportionately blocked on social platforms including Facebook and Instagram. Of the 60 health startups surveyed, all say they have faced censorship on Facebook on at least one occasion, even as very suggestive ads for male-focused products were allowed.
Advertising products related to menopause, pelvic pain, postpartum health, menstrual health, sexual wellness and breasfeeding can be flagged as “adult content.” Facebook defines the term as including “nudity, depictions of people in explicit or suggestive positions, or activities that are overly suggestive or sexually provocative.”
But products that refer to women’s health are disproportionately flagged even without other elements that could violate the policy, said Desiree Natali, senior social media manager at feminine-hygiene company The Honey Pot.
In her experience, words that refer to any aspect of women’s sexual anatomy are targeted, even if they’re not suggestive.
“At [The Honey Pot], our tagline is ‘made by humans with vaginas for humans with vaginas.’ When we posted that in our TikTok bio, it was immediately taken down,” she said in a panel discussion with other women’s health leaders.
She emailed the platform to appeal the issue, but was rejected. As a result, Honey Pot’s social media strategy team had to pivot to use emojis and creative monikers to get around the roadblock.
“It's extremely frustrating. Of course we want to keep it light, but when we get so many questions of people asking [about] things like [vaginal] discharge and how to properly [use] a tampon, it becomes extremely difficult [to communicate] with our customers,” Natali said.
The issue extends beyond products related to vaginal health, says Adriana Vasquez, cofounder and CEO at Lilu.
While the company creates products to facilitate lactation and breastfeeding, such as breast-massaging bras, Lilu has seen its ads removed from Facebook for “adult content,” including scientific animations that explain the anatomical process of lactation.
Efforts to use influencers, including medical doctors and lactation consultants, have also been struck down. Censorship of the brand continues despite its registration with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
“Breaking down the science of breastfeeding can actually really make a difference [for women] and our ads have been about sharing education,” Vasquez says. “We put effort into content creation of things that are based on science and our audience is eagerly looking for brands and companies that they can learn from, but our content gets censored.”
The issue is discouraging for brands who make investments to circumvent censorship, and it has a disproportionate economic impact on those companies, says Joe Doyle, EVP of digital health at Golin.
“Marketers who are on teams for women's health brands tend to realize that it's an unnecessary evil to have to pay to get items boosted. They often need to spend more than the men's health projects, and that’s horrible,” he said.
Golin’s team attempts to get around the censorship by putting marketing materials through an artificial intelligence program that analyzes past ads. Using natural language processing, the AI determines which past ads have been approved and which ones haven’t. Based on that insight, the agency will develop creative and optimize a campaign.
But it doesn’t always work, Doyle says.
“Even using [tools] like natural language processing and trying to determine which words make it through is an extra step that's either using technology or labor hours, so that's extra cost,” he says. “The impact is that women's health marketing executives are paying more to get the same message out no matter what.”
For Stephanie Grace Schull, founder and CEO of pelvic-floor health company Kegelbell, the biggest concern is that despite large investments and countless hours spent, women have a need that isn’t being met.
“Our data shows that when ads make it out and [spend some time up] before getting taken down, women are clicking through,” she says. “Facebook is just interrupting that flow of communication.”
Ad blocking can be much more than a temporary nuisance, sometimes it can be permanent, says Kristina Cahojova, founder and CEO of Kegg, a maker of fertility-tracking products. She says that Facebook groups about vaginal health and women’s health accounts can be permanently suspended, requests to appeal can say they are “pending review” for years.
Yet the biggest barriers to effective, scientific communications about women’s bodies can be attributed to immaturity about women’s bodies, says Kristie Kuhl, managing partner and global health practice leader at Finn Partners.
“There is immaturity and sexism that comes with banning things that deal with women's bodies,” she says. “When we even [have to] think about how to communicate and get around these shadow bans, it really puts us back into a time where we should be ashamed because we're women. I don't want to go there and I don't think the world wants to go there.”
There’s no simple solution. Recognizing AI is flawed and it would take time for social media platforms to correct issues with their algorithms and policies, Schull hopes social platforms seize the opportunity to talk about these issues by engaging in roundtable discussions about how to support women’s health brands.
Having social media players on board could reframe the issue and make them a champion for change rather than a barrier, she says. “Facebook, Instagram and others could look like heroes for jumping in and trying to help women's health rather than censoring us,” Schull says.
Doley echoes the sentiment, noting that marketers have an opportunity to make this part of a purposeful cause, while Cahojova says tech leaders and investors should push for having women on boards and in the programming room to gain the support of women. Kuhl says marketers for women’s health brands need to post content in as many places as possible and talk about things clearly and frankly, without using “cheeky language.”
“We do need to continue to push back,” she says.
For its part, TikTok says ads and organic posts pertaining to health, including those about issues like lactation during breastfeeding or pelvic-floor health, are allowed on the platform when they comply with its policies and community guidelines.
TikTok’s policy says the display and promotion of adult products and services is prohibited. Ad creatives and landing pages “must not display sexual activities or behaviors that are overly suggestive or sexually provocative,” including nudity, sexual references or sexually portray a person. The platform also prohibits the display of excessive visible skin, and states ads and landing pages must not focus on individual intimate body parts, such as genitalia, buttocks and breasts.
Representatives for Facebook parent company Meta did not respond to requests for comment.