Facebook’s Ad Policies Banned Cartoon Cleavage and Naked Backs

Emjoy, an audio-based sexual wellness app, says it had its ads rejected 60 times before being banned altogether.
One of Emjoy's original ads sh, compared to the ad that was accepted which covered cleavage.
One of Emjoy's original ads, compared to the ad that was accepted. Screenshots via Emjoy.

Facebook's ban on anything remotely sexual is so well-documented and pervasive at this point, it's almost a joke. It’s also confusing. Last year, it banned some onions for looking too sexy. You're allowed to post a photo of a butthole if you Photoshop it onto a public figure, for example, and moderators use a convoluted internal "breast squeezing policy" to decide when to ban breasts for being "squeezed" or "grabbed" in a certain way.

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For sexual wellness companies, navigating these terms of use—in order to take advantage of Facebook's massive, mainstream visibility—is a minefield. Emjoy, a sexual wellbeing audio app for women, claims that Facebook rejected more than 60 iterations of its illustrated advertisements "due to ‘sexually provocative or overly suggestive’ content." To any ordinary person, the illustrations themselves aren't remotely sexual, but to Facebook, they crossed a line.

Emjoy's original ad designs didn't include any nudity or sexual content, but featured illustrations of women in shirts that showed some cleavage, women sitting facing away so that their bare backs were exposed (but the buttocks were covered by flowers), and a woman in shorts with one leg covered by her thigh.

Ads that Emjoy submitted showing a bare upper back, compared to the ones that Facebook accepted.

Ads that Emjoy submitted, compared to the ones that Facebook accepted. Screenshots via Emjoy.

“Depending on the content, we found that with some designs every version that we edited would come back with a rejection—despite our efforts to review each design to establish what was being flagged as adult content," Andrea Oliver, CEO and co-founder of Emjoy, told Motherboard. "For some, we only had to make a small change for them to be approved, but others we edited several times with every iteration being rejected." Each time they had to go back to the drawing board took about a week of work, before trying to submit again. 

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"We found it difficult to see where we had gone wrong, as we always tried to follow Faccebook’s policies," Oliver said, adding that they've been dealing with rejections since the beginning of their Facebook advertising campaign in January 2020, and got more rejections in July and August 2020. Eventually, she claims, their whole advertising account was blocked by Facebook in October 2020. She was surprised that the ads were banned at all, compared to other ads that run on Facebook for clothing or lingerie on human models. 

Ads that Emjoy submitted showing a woman in shorts with her hand under her thigh, compared to the ones accepted showing the hand on top of the thigh. Screenshots via Emjoy.

Ads that Emjoy submitted showing a woman in shorts with her hand under her thigh, compared to the ones accepted showing the hand on top of the thigh. Screenshots via Emjoy.

"I don’t think that the removal of our illustrations of women adds up," she said. "Although we understand that these filters and policies are necessary, it was hard to understand exactly where we had ‘crossed the line’, so it became trial and error to see what it was in each advert that had sparked concern.”

Facebook has a long history of censoring representations of women's bodies and experiences, sexual and non-sexual—it started banning images of breastfeeding and nipples as early as 2008, and clarified that breasts are ok if a baby is attached in 2012—but sex educators, sexual wellness companies, and just regular people with breasts have struggled to work within Facebook's obscenity guidelines since. 

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Facebook's community policies ban most sexual content, but "photographs of paintings, sculptures, and other art that depicts nude figures'' are allowed. Otherwise, what's considered "sexual" by Facebook is ultimately up to the company's discretion. 

Making all of this even more confusing is the fact that the rules for regular timeline posts and advertising content are different: Its guidelines for ads is stricter than for regular timeline posts: No "adult content" is allowed in ads, and according to the site, this includes "nudity, depictions of people in explicit or suggestive positions, or activities that are overly suggestive or sexually provocative." 

Things that will get an ad banned from Facebook include: "Nudity or implied nudity; Excessive visible skin or cleavage, even if not explicitly sexual in nature; Images focused on individual body parts, such as abs, buttocks or chest, even if not explicitly sexual in nature; Dating ads where the focus of the ad is on a partly clothed model." Strangely, nude sculptures are ok.  Earlier this month, Facebook banned an ad depicting women breastfeeding. 

Motherboard has reached out to Facebook for comment, and will update when we hear back.

"Emjoy is not alone in this experience. Many companies within the sexual wellness and sex tech space have had similar issues, which is a problem for customer acquisition," Oliver said. "This is partially why we wanted to highlight our own experiences through sharing the adverts that were banned—to show that images in advertising, even a bare back, are never taken without the context of who is producing it."