Facebook censors’ theater of the absurd

Rejected FB AdI don’t use Facebook ads a ton. I probably own more in Facebook stock than I’ve spent on ads and promoted posts over the last year, but occasionally I’ll pay to boost a post because it’s one of the only ways to make sure more than a handful of people see your content. The ad here to the right was one such promoted post, highlighting a story on Greek art that’s part of my series on nudity and science. Facebook rejected the ad. Because it’s a statue of a naked man. A Greek statue, mind you, an amazing piece of art not unlike Michelangelo’s David, standing in a museum on public display.

I’ve had ads mistakenly disapproved before. Facebook has rejected the Amazon sales pages for my books as “multi-level marketing schemes” more than once, only to approve them when I complained that the ad reviewers weren’t being thorough or fair. And Facebook has already had well-publicized screw-ups when it comes to nudity, out-and-out banning pictures of mothers breastfeeding their children and blocking posts—not ads, but posts—of artwork that features nudity (<— definitely read this, it’s a very similar situation). They supposedly have adopted a standard that only bans “actual nude people.” Indeed, I reached out to a source at Facebook and that’s what this person articulated to me.

So, I contacted ad sales about the ad, wondering if maybe they’d made a mistake. Nope, said someone named Vanessa who was happy to help me.

Your ad was rejected because the image violates the Ad Guidelines. Ads may not use very sexual images, suggest nudity, show a lot of skin or cleavage, or focus unnecessarily on specific body parts.

I wrote back and asked Vanessa if she was really sure about this. The picture in question was, after all, a statue. There is no skin or cleavage, it’s not a sexual image by any stretch. It’s well-regarded art. Vanessa was not happy with me anymore.

This decision is final. Any form of nudity will not be permitted. Please consider this the end of our correspondence regarding this matter.

Get that? “Any form of nudity.” I think Vanessa is a little off script here, as that’s not what the guideline says and not the standard Facebook has articulated on record in the media. This made me very curious, so I started paying actual attention to the ads I was getting on my profile, and asked some friends to take a few screen grabs of ads they were seeing on their pages. Here’s just a sample.

Now, I don’t have a problem with a single ad in that gallery, they’re all fine in my opinion. But they put the banning of my Greek statue in new light. I mean, that’s some guy’s naked ass up there in the sexy Orthodox priest ad, right? That’s okay, but classic art isn’t? Those women are all covered (and more on the Red Head Writing ad in a moment, because they’re awesome), but the suggestion of nudity is… palpable. There’s not a single image up there that’s not using sex to sell, yet, these were all approved despite a ban on sexualized images. These just show the problem with a policy like Facebook’s. It’s too vague to be enforced, and even when it is, it’s done inconsistently and arbitrarily, often in ways that defy explanation.

One of the ads up there is Erika Napoletano’s for her Facebook page Red Head Writing. It seems Facebook’s algorithms had started suggesting that her fans would also like the page of Camille Crimson, a porn star. So, Napoletano thought it would be awesome fun to rebrand her page to match Crimson’s, sexy suggested-nudity photos included. She apparently had no problem getting her ads approved, yet—classic Greek art. No! Maybe I should take the same route? Strip down and put a pizza box over my crotch like that one ad up there? You know, I totally would… but someone’s borrowing my cameras. No, seriously.

Rejected Facebook Pumpkin Ad

Anyway, this is all bad enough, but it didn’t end there. In the midst of all this, I turned on a collection of Facebook generated ads that take a page’s most recent post and feeds it into the ad network. My most recent post was a couple of pictures of a jack-o-lantern I’d been working on. I wanted to show off my rudimentary carving skills. But, almost not even to my surprise, Facebook rejected my pumpkin ads, too. Apparently, the reviewer blocked them for promoting alcohol to underage drinkers. Yes. Promoting alcohol.

If at this point, you’re saying, “But wait…” then you’re finally catching up to where I’ve been all weekend. I emailed Vanessa, asking if she had an explanation for this. She got back to me this morning.

Your ad was rejected because the image violates the Ad Guidelines. Ads may not use very sexual images, suggest nudity, show a lot of skin or cleavage, or focus unnecessarily on specific body parts be it human or of figurines. (emphasis added)

At least Vanessa’s back on script, even if she is reading from the wrong one.

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Justin is a writer and actor in Washington, D.C. His non-fiction stories have appeared in Wired, Popular Science and San Diego Citybeat among authors. He's the author of the Station One Series and Treknology: Star Trek' Tech 200 Years Ahead of the Future.