The MTA, the corporation responsible for public transportation in New York City, is no stranger to public scrutiny regarding its advertisement policies. Earlier this week, the corporation garnered attention in yet another advertisement controversy, this time concerning the sex toy brand Dame.
In July, when the MTA told The New York Times that they would in fact work with sex toy company Unbound after previously rejecting their ads, Dame’s founders, Alex Fine and Janet Lieberman, felt encouraged to approach the MTA about posting ads for their own sex toy company.
According to Fine, who spoke to Broadly over the phone, the MTA’s ad agency, Outfront Media, began working with Dame in September. For several months, the MTA, through Outfront, worked with Dame as they sent advertisement proofs back and forth for the MTA’s approval. The posters included images of their products—green, red, and blue sex toys in odd shapes not immediately recognizable as vibrators—alongside slogans that read, “Toys, for sex” and customer reviews.
On November 2, the company submitted their final ad posters, which were based on MTA feedback. Three weeks later, Dame received an email from their representative at Outfront. “I wish I had some better news,” the email read. “It looks like we will be unable to run this ad content. The MTA will be releasing a new Q and A regarding advertising guidelines.”
The guidelines in question were changes to a document titled “The MTA’s Advertising Policy: Frequently Asked Questions,” updated on November 15, 2018, which now includes a section that specifically asks if advertisements for sex toys are permitted. “No,” reads the answer. “The MTA Advertising Policy prohibits any advertisement that promotes a ‘sexually oriented business,’ and advertisements for sex toys or devices for any gender fall within this category.”
The new policy contradicts what the MTA told The New York Times just last year about working with Unbound. In May of 2018, MTA spokesman Jon Weinstein told the Times that the MTA would “work with [Unbound] toward a resolution that is agreeable to all parties and allows their ads on the system.” Before November, the MTA had never singled out the exclusion of sex toys in their policy.
But the MTA never ran Unbound’s ads. According to Unbound CEO and co-founder Polly Rodriguez, after telling the Times that they’d work with Unbound, the MTA demanded that the company change their imagery, specifically what the MTA referred to as “phallic symbols” included in the ads.
“Because of their unwillingness to change the policies and the ridiculous double standard regarding phallic imagery (see: Hims ads), we did not move forward and the ads we submitted were never approved,” Rodriguez told Broadly. Last year, Broadly reported that Hims—a telemedicine brand that advertises their erectile dysfunction and condom services with the MTA using images of cactuses to directly evoke penises—faced no obstacles getting their ads approved by the corporation. According to Rodriguez, the MTA’s decision to ban sex toy companies entirely from advertising on the subway is “disappointing to say the least.”
On December 3, Dame’s Fine was forwarded a letter from John Lieber, the MTA’s Chief Development Officer, addressed to Outfront, formally declining work with Dame. The letter, which Broadly has reviewed, reads, in part, “After a careful review, the MTA determined that the proposed ads promote a sexually oriented business, which has long been prohibited by the MTA’s advertising standards.”
“The MTA has a long-standing policy that prohibits advertising promoting a sexually oriented business,” MTA spokesman Shams Tarek said in a statement to Broadly. “This decision was reached after careful review and is consistent with the advertising standards set by the MTA Board.”
While the MTA’s advertisement policy, last updated in 2015, does say that the corporation will not advertise with “sexually oriented businesses,” it has since displayed ads by the Museum of Sex, some of which include nude butts and a room of inflated breasts, as well as erectile dysfunction medication and condom providers Hims and Roman. After the success of Hims, the company launched Hers, an adjacent telemedicine brand which provides sexual wellness products for women, in October and supported the launch with an ad campaign with the MTA. Hers ads, unlike Hims, do not include sexual imagery, and instead feature images of skincare products or women holding birth control packets.
Fine tells Broadly that she finds the MTA’s decision regarding Dame not only frustrating, but telling. “It seems really interesting where they're drawing the line,” she says. “If [the MTA] continue to value and validate the ability to have sex as [a] health [issue] and important, but treat sexual pleasure as problematic to society, we're encouraging more sex but not encouraging that sex to be good.” Fine—who mentioned that all the people Dame communicated with on the ads at both Outfront and the MTA were men—believes that the decision is ultimately sexist. “The MTA platform favors male-run organizations that tackle sexual health with a male-centered lens,” she said.
She’s not the first brand owner to accuse the corporation of sexism. Both menstrual underwear brand Thinx, whose ads showed egg yolks, halved grapefruits, and women in basic shirts and underwear, and Unbound have previously accused the MTA of enforcing a double standard when they faced pushback to getting their ads on the subway.
Fine explains that she and her team at Dame have been immensely frustrated by the MTA’s sudden decision to drop them. Since the transit corporation declined to work with them, Dame has set up a page on their website encouraging people to tag the MTA and use the hashtag #PleasureIsHealth in support of their ads. "This [decision] really upsets me,” said Fine, “but it’s also why I started the whole company: because people treat one of our main functions as human beings as awful."