Update: On Thursday night, Unbound learned the MTA had reconsidered its stance and would help the company advertise without violating its ad policies. “Outfront has reached out to start the conversation about re-submitting to the MTA, and we’re looking forward to learning what this means for the campaign,” Unbound CEO Polly Rodriguez told Fast Company. “We haven’t yet finalized what changes will be required of us or any other specifics. That said, we want to make certain we’re not just putting a band-aid on this issue by making quick fixes, but really doing our best to change the policies that resulted in this dispute in the first place.”
A few years ago, the MTA bristled at the prospect of running Thinx ads in the subway. The ads featured women wearing the company’s period-proof underwear, alongside a peeled grapefruit and runny eggs–a suggestive but innocuous wink to the vagina and menstruation. The MTA eventually approved the ad campaign, though not until after the media caught wind of the situation.
The MTA has now made a similar call with yet another startup that primarily caters to women. This time it’s Unbound, a sexual wellness company that makes sex toys and accessories, whose ads the MTA has deemed unfit for public consumption. The MTA’s ad review process is overseen by a third party, an outdoor advertising company called Outfront Media. In its response to Unbound, Outfront pointed to two clauses in the MTA’s ad policy, which bars material that amounts to “the dissemination of indecent material to minors” and the “public display of offensive sexual material.” (Outfront did not offer suggestions or changes that could help the ads pass muster.)
But any subway rider knows the MTA has given the green light to countless ads that might fall into one or both of those categories before. Advertisements for breast augmentation and the Museum of Sex are a regular fixture in subway cars and stations. And it would be hard to miss a more recent addition–the loud, wordy ads for Roman, a men’s health company that diagnoses and delivers erectile dysfunction medication, with copy such as “Erectile dysfunction meds prescribed online, delivered to your friend’s door.”
Unbound’s proposed ads, by comparison, are more artwork than advertising. The company worked with five artists to create a series of ads that have little to no text, save for the illustrator’s Instagram handle and Unbound’s URL. All of the images include a subtle smattering of sexual wellness products–say, vibrators and lube–but that might be lost on a casual observer.
So if the MTA is on board with advertising for men’s sexual health, why don’t the same rules apply here for women? The MTA, for its part, had little to say aside from reiterating that the ads “violate the advertising policy set by the MTA Board.” (Outfront did not respond to requests for comment from Fast Company.) Based on the clauses Outfront referenced, it seems like the MTA isn’t simply rejecting the imagery of lube or vibrators in Unbound’s ads; the agency is also outlining what constitutes “indecent” or “offensive” sexual material as it pertains to women’s sexual health. The ambiguity between what that means for male sexual health versus female sexual health is foregrounded by the ads the MTA does–and doesn’t–allow.
What’s more: This isn’t the only marketing avenue blocked off to Unbound. “We continue to be disappointed by the MTA, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and Pinterest,” Unbound CEO Polly Rodriguez told Fast Company. Those platforms ban some sexual content regardless of the target audience, but the application of these rules is often inconsistent across genders and more stringent for women-focused ads. Why should a company like Unbound be treated differently than a company like Roman? And who should determine what signifies “indecent” or “offensive” sexual material?