Sex toy maker Dame sues NYC’s transit authority for advertising discrimination
Women’s sexual wellness company Dame Products has filed a lawsuit against New York City’s Metropolitan Transit Authority for refusing to run ads featuring female sex toys, claiming MTA guidelines unfairly discriminate against the company while other brands have been free to use cleavage, phallic shapes and sexual innuendos in their advertisements.
“When I first reached out to the MTA, they said, ‘We’re willing to work with you.’ And I told them, ‘I would love to buy you guys lunch’,” says Alexandra Fine, the CEO and co-founder of Dame Products, who added that the MTA was initially receptive to the core concept of its advertising campaign.
In July 2018, Dame contacted Outfront Media, the MTA’s advertising partner, to run a “tasteful, balanced [ad] campaign” on the New York City subway featuring a series of multi-colored vibrators using the tagline “Toys, for sex.” By September, she says, the MTA had green-lit the campaign and provided feedback to Dame so its ads could be appropriately revised in the lead-up to the campaign’s expected launch date.
According to the legal complaint, Dame alleges that it spent roughly $150,000 tweaking its ads in response to the MTA’s critiques before resubmitting them for final approval. After several weeks of radio silence in which Dame claims it was “strung along,” the MTA ultimately responded by rejecting the campaign in December, citing its revised advertising guidelines.
In its official policy guide, last updated on November 15, 2018, the MTA states that it “prohibits any advertisement that promotes a ‘sexually oriented business,’ and advertisements for sex toys or devices for any gender.” However, according to the lawsuit, the MTA’s decision to ban Dame’s ads was “arbitrary and unlawful.”
“We have not been served with this lawsuit and cannot comment on it directly,” MTA spokesman Maxwell Young said in a statement, “but their public statements are clearly inaccurate as the MTA’s advertising is in no way gender-based or viewpoint discriminatory.”
The complaint cites several examples of sexually oriented or suggestive advertisements that have been approved by the transit operator in the past: Hims, a men’s wellness brand, ran a series of ads for erectile dysfunction medication showcasing phallic-shaped cacti; Manhattan’s Museum of Sex once overlaid its logo on an image of bare buttocks on the subway; travel-booking platform Wanderu was allowed to distribute ads with the tagline “Get wet. (On the beach, not from the guy next to you.)”
Upon filing the complaint, Dame also launched its #DerailSexism social media campaign to inform consumers about the context and intent of its lawsuit. In addition to creating a custom landing page titled “So, we’re suing the MTA,” #DerailSexism provides the public with access to the full text of its written complaint and a one-minute video highlighting the disparities between Dame’s rejected ads and approved ads with similar subject matter from over the years.
Dame is urging its customers to share #DerailSexism on social media and reach out to the MTA online to share their dissatisfaction with its handling of Dame’s advertising proposal. Within hours of launching the campaign, dozens of consumers tweeted the hashtag with responses ranging from messages of encouragement to side-by-side comparisons of rejected Dame ads and similar approved ones, to highlighting the medical benefits of vibrators including increasing libido and treating arousal disorders.
“I hope for a quick outcome, and a positive ending to this story,” says Fine, “and I do think that there should be ad restrictions. But [they] should allow for sexual wellness products to have ad space in a way that’s socially acceptable and safe and comfortable. And I’d love to see [Dame] help make those changes.”
According to the complaint, Dame is requesting a judgement against the MTA that includes, among other things, compensation for financial hardship, an injunction that orders the MTA to display Dame’s ads on their property, and a declaration that states the MTA’s decision to deny Dame the opportunity to advertise on the subway violated the company’s First Amendment rights.