When Colette Courtion, founder and CEO of Joylux, which makes health tech products aimed at curbing vaginal atrophy, began to advertise, she quickly started getting ad rejections from social media giants. Her product, which was developed to help women with incontinence, vaginal dryness and other conditions related to aging and giving birth, is an intervaginal tool that bears resemblance to a vibrator.
She said this fact quickly set off the alarm bells on social media algorithms and it was categorized as a sex toy. To combat this first issue, Courtion and her team removed all images of the product, not just from the ads, but also on the website. But this sent her into a more perplexing process wherein some ads were rejected and others accepted by Facebook.
For example, one ad, which has a photo of the body of a female clinician in a lab coat and the words, “VFit was designed by an OB/GYNS and a team of women who, together, intimately understand the importance of pelvic floor wellness. #getvFit,” was rejected. Having ads rejected isn’t exactly uncommon for femtech companies – especially any that touch on sexual wellness.
An issue in the femtech community
Among the femtech circles, there has been a growing conversation around the difficulties of advertising their products. Some of the most popular platforms, like Facebook and Google, have strict policies around what can and cannot be advertised, but in the femtech world those lines can be blurry.
However, some industry players are concerned about what these advertising challenges could do to the femtech industry as a whole.
“Femtech companies are facing barriers in marketing their products or services as a result of inconsistently applied rules around the language used to describe women’s health and wellness,” Maria Velissaris, a founding partner at VC firm SteelSky Ventures, told MobiHealthNews. “We have seen many companies in the space have ads removed for containing words like vagina, sexual health, pelvic floor and many more.”
But Velissaris stressed that when it comes to men’s health products the same isn’t necessarily true.
“Conversely, ads containing language around men’s health, such as “sperm and erectile dysfunction,” are not banned,” she said. “These bans on advertising and marketing perpetuate the inequities in healthcare and the inequitable funding that women’s health companies, as well female founders, face when trying to innovate and succeed in this space.”
Companies focused on sexual health in particular face some of the biggest challenges. On Facebook, which both Velissaris and Courtion noted was among the most stringent, what many companies are coming up against is a specific policy that allows for family planning products to be advertised – which leaves the door open for erectile dysfunction products but doesn’t allow products associated with sexual pleasure for either sex.
“Adverts must not promote the sale or use of adult products or services, unless they promote family planning and contraception,” the policy reads. “Adverts for contraceptives must focus on the contraceptive features of the product and not on sexual pleasure or sexual enhancement, and must be targeted to people aged 18 years or older.”
On the advertising guidelines website, the company gives the example that it would be acceptable to advertise free condoms at a student health center, but not condoms to enhance sexual pleasure.
The company also specifies in its policies that nudity, “depictions of people in explicit or suggestive positions” and activities that are overly suggestive and provocative can’t be included in advertising.
MobiHealthNews reached out to Facebook about the issues around femtech advertising, and Joylux in particular. The company said that it wants women’s products to be able to advertise are and is working on improving the detection of what is appropriate and what is not.
“We welcome women’s wellness products on our platform, and apologize that they’re sometimes confused with prohibited products. We’re improving our enforcement to stop this happening,” a Facebook spokesperson wrote in an email to MobiHealthNews.
A Facebook spokesperson said that the company has overturned several incorrect rejections from Joylux, allowing those ads to run. As for the policies prohibiting adult content and services, the company takes into consideration that it caters to individuals from differnet countries and cultures who may see the ads, according to a Facebook spokesperson.
While there is no specific ban on words about the female body, both Velissaris and Courtion said that women’s health companies that don’t fit into the family planning space can struggle to get placement.
“Condoms or erectile dysfunction drugs are okay, because you need to be able to not have a baby or have a baby,” Courtion said. “What they don’t understand is it works the same way for women. If a woman’s vaginal tissue is compromised, she can’t engage in intercourse to have a baby. If you are bleeding from sex, and it hurts, then you aren’t going to have sex.”
But down the road, Velissaris worries about the implications for these femtech companies and the industry.
“There is a negative waterfall effect that occurs when women’s health companies are banned from advertising their products or services,” she said. “The ability to reach their target audience quickly and efficiently is severely impacted, leading to slower growth, market awareness and revenue gains. This in turn, increases the time required to reach key milestones, which impacts their ability to attract capital for future growth.”
“That’s the sad thing about all of this. There is a stigma and taboo around talking about women’s bodies,” Courtion said.
Thinking outside the box
Due to the resistance met on different channels, femtech companies are rethinking advertising strategies. One way that Joylux gets around some of the restrictions is to use clever words that hint at what the product is.
“It makes it that much more difficult because we have to be very cheeky or clever in how we talk about products without raising alarms from Facebook. We have to create our own nomenclature or our own words. Half the time the women go, ‘Huh? What’s intimate wellness?’ Intimate is a word we can use. What is a word for feminine wellness – feminine health? Is it about periods? So how do you talk about vaginas, in a sense, when you can’t talk about vaginas? We would be doing ourselves and women a disservice if we started using … slang for vagina. That degrades the whole point.”
Lioness, which is a connected vibrator designed to help women understand their bodies, originally tried to advertise on traditional channels, but CEO Liz Klinger quickly realized that wasn’t going to work, since the product focused on sexual health and pleasure.
So she went a different direction. She began to circulate educational information and share stories on the company’s website, thus building a community.
“I think if we are looking at the context of femtech like infertility and menopause, one of the things I’ve noticed is a lot of the more focused companies that are even consumer health focused tend to be stiff in how they communicate with their audience and don't seem as relatable,” Klinger said. “One of the things that resonates with our customers is we write all sorts of stories from first person… and we want to look at it from a curious standpoint… It might be a difficult topic.”
Klinger said in the past she was able to get out the word on social media about the launch of her product, but had to work the system. When she was launching Lioness, she set up an IndieGoGo page and called it a baby announcement – jokingly saying that the company was her baby. When she connected this to Facebook, she said the algorithm on the social media platform most likely recognized it as a baby announcement, and it was widely promoted to her followers on their feeds.
While a slew of femtech companies have come up against advertising issues, that’s not to say it happens to every femtech company.
Carine Carmy, founder of Origin, a physical therapy designed for women and mothers, said that while she has heard of others in the femtech space dealing with this issue, she herself hasn’t had ads rejected. Instead, she said her biggest hurdle in advertising is education, specifically helping women understand there are tools for what has previously been considered “taboo issue.” For example, making her potential customers aware that issues like incontinence can be fixed with physical therapy.
Femtech is still a relatively new industry, and its role in the healthcare and consumer space is still becoming clear. However, Velissaris said that in the future she hopes to see some of the controversy around the area disappear.
“With the recognition and rise of innovations in the femtech space, we are seeing a shift as companies work to break down these stigmas and taboos and create opportunities for education and community around these issues,” Velissaris said. “Now we just need the leaders of the global marketing platforms to get on board.”
Editor's note: This story has been updated to include more information about Facebook's policies. It has also been updated to include a note that Facebook has now overturned several rejections of Joylux's ads.