Brand Purpose Meta Social Media

Why Meta freeing the nipple would be good for advertisers


By Chris Sutcliffe, Senior reporter

January 20, 2023 | 7 min read

The tech company’s advisory council has recommended overturning a blanket ban on female nudity. As the Facebook owner considers whether to accept the council’s guidance, campaigners say it would be a step in the right direction for advertisers.

A statue of a woman's torso demonstrating how to check for breast cancer

The ruling has implications for brands whose products sit on the intersection of nudity and sexuality / Victoria Strukovska

Meta’s rules banning bare-chested images of women – but not men – on Facebook and Instagram have been criticized for nearly a decade. But hinting that a reversal is coming, the company’s advisory board has stated that a blanket ban on female nudity should be scrapped.

The board, which is made up of academics and political figures otherwise unaffiliated with the company, specifically noted the case of a US-based couple who identify as transgender and non-binary. Their content was removed by an AI system. But the board said the case highlighted that its policies are based on a “binary view of gender and a distinction between male and female bodies” and that rules on nipple-baring are “unclear” when it comes to intersex, non-binary and transgender users.

In effect, the oversight board is saying that Meta’s current moderation approach – whether through AI or human decision-making – does not have the ability to make these nuanced decisions at the scale required to enforce a policy. And so the rules need to be changed.

The decision follows many years of campaigning from the grassroots level up to brand campaigns to draw attention to the harm that can come from a blanket ban on showing the female body – especially when that content is in service of public health education in areas like breastfeeding or breast cancer.

Saving smaller brands

For advertisers, the reversal of this policy could be a game-changing move. Dr Carolina Are, an innovation fellow at the Centre for Digital Citizen at Northumbria University and an anti-censorship activist, has argued that Meta needs to separate nudity from sexuality when making these decisions. This would be especially important for lifestyle brands that intersect with nudity.

She says: “This could make life easier for a lot of brands that use women’s bodies. If you’re a smaller brand, a sexual health brand, a pleasure brand... basically, no one’s fighting in your corner. Hopefully, a change in policy has potential that will help brands advertise better.”

Brands that have been impacted include Australia-based lingerie company Liar Liar and sexual wellbeing brand Emojibator. The issue has also been repeatedly highlighted by influencers and brand ambassadors including the Kardashians.

Are also notes that, as Meta’s AI has been trained to seek out posts related to sex work and sex trafficking, often the net is spread too wide and sex-positive brands and individuals get caught up as well. That also hits people and organizations that write about health and wellbeing.

That’s a point also made by Abby Sugar, co-founder of gender-equal clothing brand Play Out. She explains that smaller brands are disproportionately hit by those blanket bans, which fail to distinguish between sexuality and nudity. “That’s where, from a brand standpoint, and especially from a small brand standpoint, it really, really has damaged us. [Our ads] get rejected by the bots first, so it’ll delay the rollout of marketing campaigns for us. It takes more cost and manpower for us to appeal that rejection.

“We get hit a lot when we’re just trying to express ourselves. Whereas you have hyper-sexualized but highly binary gendered models that are three-quarters naked and these ads are allowed to run.”

That confusion – whether deliberate or otherwise – has also been questioned by Free The Nipple Brighton organizer Bee Nicholls, who says: “Where it starts to get complicated is when the body is seen as always sexual. We need more literacy or more dialogue about that agency, about when people are being sexual and when people are not being sexual, versus the constant, relentless over-sexualization that’s imposed on women.”

Sugar also states that, given the growing proportion of young people who do identify as LGBTQ+ and have the desire to see better representation, there is a commercial consideration for Meta as well as a moral one.

The brand safety argument

For organizations including Free The Nipple, which has made the social censorship of women’s bodies a large part of its campaign work, the renewed guidance from the Meta board has been a long time coming. Nicholls explains: “This is a big step in the right direction, but it’s probably the first big step that I’ve witnessed since I’ve been involved in the campaign.”

Meta’s previous position was, in part, predicated on the idea that nudity, exemplified by the female nipple, is not brand-safe or appropriate for children. Nicholls points out that brand safety issues on social spaces are more endemic. “There is so much unbelievably offensive, bizarre, ridiculous, rude, horrific content on Instagram... and businesses feel perfectly comfortable showing their logos and their products and their campaigns next to those images. A nipple – especially a nonsexual nipple – is not really anything to be worried about in comparison.”

For its part, Meta is keen to demonstrate that it is taking safety seriously across its platforms. It recently announced more ad controls for teenagers on its platforms. For smaller brands that have historically been hit by the blanket ban, however, overturning it is only the first step towards a representative and equitable social policy on Meta’s platforms.

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