“It’s been happening for some time, and it just was like, ‘This is getting ridiculous,’” Horton says. “In the age of DE&I [diversity, equity and inclusion], I can’t imagine that this continues to happen, but there’s at least six companies that I know in the space that, on a daily basis, try to post fashion-specific or related adaptive garments.”
Trapped by AI
Horton pointed to brands like Slick Chicks, Care Zips, Intimately, Patti and Ricky, Abilitee Adaptive, and Alter Your Ego. The brands can get trapped by Facebook’s artificial intelligence systems that moderate the platform. Facebook’s rejection notice for Horton’s ads read: “Listings may not promote medical and healthcare products and services, including medical devices, or smoking cessation products containing nicotine.”
Horton suspects that Facebook’s AI flagged the images because of the wheelchairs, since ads for the same product that featured a standing model, sailed through, Horton says.
A Facebook spokesperson said the company looked into the ads in question, and found they did not violate the policies regarding medical devices. Those policies prohibit the sale of medical equipment, and not images of medical equipment. “We have approved several listings that should not have been rejected,” the Facebook spokesperson said in an email statement. “Our enforcement isn’t perfect, but it gets better with time—we apologize for the mistake.”
In 2018, Slick Chicks, which sells undergarments made for women with disabilities, organized an online petition to protest Facebook’s ad policies. Facebook appeared to be censoring Slick Chicks over the content on its website, which featured women modeling the apparel. Horton says that Slick Chicks’ appeal got Facebook’s attention, helping the brand pursue its marketing strategy going forward.
Businesses large and small have run into issues with Facebook’s automated ad system, especially in recent months as the social network is trying to safeguard the site with more rigorous enforcement. Facebook’s AI can sometimes snag acceptable ads while it is searching for more pernicious content. Facebook has been on the lookout for bad actors abusing the system, with schemes like COVID-19 hoaxes and election misinformation.
Facebook is not the only internet ad platform with automated filters that could arbitrarily penalize legitimate marketers. Earlier this year, Google heard from businesses worried about their capacity to market goods and services during the pandemic, when the search giant was banning material related to COVID-19.
In November, Bloomberg News reported on Facebook mistakenly banning ads from small businesses. The subject is a sensitive one for Facebook, as it is home to more than 10 million monthly advertisers, and it has made an effort to highlight how it is a bastion of e-commerce for many small- and medium-size businesses.
Last week, Facebook placed full-page ads in major newspapers, touting its support of small businesses that rely on its ad products. Facebook bought the ads to mount a public relations campaign against Apple, which plans to update mobile phone software with stricter privacy protections. Facebook says Apple's rules will harm businesses that rely on connections made with consumers through online data for marketing and more.
Horton says that Facebook’s policy against advertising medical devices makes sense, since the space is susceptible to exploitative marketers making dubious claims.
Horton says she sells “technology-infused clothing that has magnets in it that helps people with limited mobility, dexterity, aging or disability, get dressed independently.”
“We’re not selling any medical devices,” Horton says. “It just happens to be that the model that we’re showing is a seated body in a wheelchair.”
Akvile DeFazio, who runs social media ad agency AKvertise, manages a number of businesses’ ad accounts, and says that Facebook can be sensitive about any products associated with health and medical services.
“Facebook can be a bit finicky when it comes to medical supplies, but they have to make sure they carefully word their ad copy and don't imply that their target audience has a certain issue,” DeFazio says. “We've had medical clothing and equipment clients in the past with a large company, [that] got constantly flagged and disabled because of the AI. We were told we had to be cautious of the terminology we used for this particular client that made diabetic smart socks.”
Most businesses tend to face resistance at some point with Facebook campaigns, DeFazio says. And the issues seem to have grown in recent months, DeFazio says.
“We've seen a number of ads and accounts get disabled,” DeFazio says. “As soon as we get through chat support or our rep, our assets reactivate. Of course, technology is imperfect, but this seems to have no fix in sight and appears to worsen. It is causing businesses a significant amount of wasted time, money, and resources as they have to deal with this on a frequent basis.”
Updated (Dec 21 at 1.40 p.m. EST) with Facebook comment in 8th paragraph.