When Krista Venero, an author who writes under the pen name K.L. Montgomery, bought ads on Facebook for a romance novel she published last year, she thought her marketing fell well within the bounds of the social network’s policies.
The ad showed an image of a woman photographed from behind with a portion of her upper back exposed. It didn’t seem particularly racy, certainly no more than an ad for Olay body wash, showing a woman’s bare back and legs, that Ms. Venero had recently seen.
Facebook rejected her ad, however, and when she disputed the decision, a representative told her that it implied nudity and that the company did not allow ads “with a sexual undertone.”
Facebook now says it incorrectly rejected Ms. Venero’s ad, but the back and forth is an example of the social network’s struggles over images of the human body. More precisely, as Facebook processes millions of ads a week through a mix of automation and human review, what is acceptable and what isn’t, and who is making those decisions?
Ms. Venero now tends to make her ads “extremely conservative, she said. “They usually just have a man and woman’s face on them,” she added. “I do have one that has a man’s chest, and I’ve never had any problems with it. But a woman’s shoulder — we have a problem.”
Ms. Venero is not the only one to complain that Facebook is inconsistent when deciding which images are sexually suggestive, particularly pictures of women. The company has flagged a photo of a woman in a T-shirt reading in dim lighting, for example, while allowing a provocative image of a man’s bare stomach for an ad from a Facebook group dedicated to “steamy romance novels” called Beyond 50 Shades. That image, in which the man had his thumb on the inside of his pants, was incorrectly approved, a Facebook spokeswoman recently said.
April Ray, who helps run a book blog, Reading After Dark, was alarmed late last year when a photo of her was flagged as adult content. Ms. Ray was using the picture, which showed her reading in a dark room in a black T-shirt, as part of a promotion for the blog’s Facebook page.
“It definitely stung a little because it was my profile picture and I’ve had it for three years now, and it’s just my face — I’m wearing a regular T-shirt that I think I got at the Gap,” Ms. Ray said. She said it had taken several days for her appeal to reach a person at Facebook. The photo was then approved, but it was too late for a contest her blog was running.
Facebook’s ad practices have long been scrutinized, even more so after 13 Russians were indicted in February on charges that they tried to disrupt the 2016 presidential election by, among other things, distributing divisive ads through the social network. But the disputes raised by Ms. Venero and Ms. Ray are indicative of questions raised by smaller advertisers, who rely on Facebook to market their work but often have to navigate the appeals process themselves.
Facebook prohibits adult content in ads, including “depictions of people in explicit or suggestive positions” and “activities that are overly suggestive orsexually provocative.” The rules also extend to “implied nudity,” “excessive visible skin” and images that are too focused on individual body parts “even if not explicitly sexual in nature.” On Facebook’s website, all of the examples showed women.
“Facebook’s policies have the effect of sexualizing women’s bodies in a way that is not necessary and very unhealthy for society,” said Jillian York, the director for international freedom of expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which advocates digital privacy protections. She added that while the company allowed topless men, it took a strict approach to nudity of a female torso.
Joel Jones, Facebook’s vice president of global marketing solutions operations, said that the company tended to be “conservative” when monitoring ads that people might find offensive but that its enforcement of adult content did not distinguish between men and women. Human reviewers are trained with examples that feature both men and women, Mr. Jones said, and he noted that more women appeared in ads — almost twice as often as men in a sampling during the previous 30 days.
For advertisers, debating what constitutes “adult content” with those human reviewers can be frustrating. Goodbye Bread, an edgy online retailer for young women, said it had a heated debate with Facebook in December over the image of young woman modeling a leopard-print mesh shirt. Facebook said the picture was too suggestive.
When Goodbye Bread challenged the decision, and a company representative replied that the issue was the policy against ads “that show a lot of skin.”
“The shirt is considerably transparent in the fact that the breast would be visible had it not been blurred,” the representative said, adding that as a result, the nudity was “implied.”
When presented with the email exchange by The New York Times, a Facebook spokeswoman said that the image did not violate its policies on adult content and that the company had sent “incorrect messaging” to Goodbye Bread. The post, the spokesperson said, actually violated a separate policy involving profanity because of another image in the same ad.
George Stamelos, a co-founder of Goodbye Bread, said fashion brands regularly dealt with mixed messages from Facebook on skin and suggestiveness in ads but could often successfully appeal to human moderators. He also said Facebook’s policies were unfairly applied to women.
“I get bombarded with stupid ads for swimwear and stuff like that — every guy is topless with a six pack, and they don’t have a problem with that,” Mr. Stamelos said. “During the summer, we couldn’t advertise our swimwear collection on Facebook because we kept getting rejected for excessive skin.”
It’s sticky territory for a company of Facebook’s size,particularly when there is intense scrutiny on gender inequality. It also raises questions about who, at a company where just 35 percent of the employees are women, is deciding what’s suggestive.
Facebook declined to give rough estimates of how many people work on reviewing and approving ads or say where they are. In October, the company announced it was hiring 1,000 additional people to review ads in the wake of congressional hearings that examined the role Facebook played in helping spread disinformation during the 2016 election, including the impact of Russian political ads purchased on Facebook.
Mr. Jones of Facebook said the company set higher standards for ads than for regular posts from users because ads were “proactively pushed out to people.” He said Facebook was “focused on improving our review protocols and automated systems.”
Facebook, which counts more than two billion users worldwide, has frequently been accused of taking a conservative, and at times haphazard, approach to what types of nudity it finds acceptable.
In 2008, women began noticing that their photos of breast-feeding were being removed from personal posts as well as from private groups where women shared advice and tips on how to nurse their babies. Critics of Facebook have since argued that its policies against showing female nipples harm health initiatives that encourage breast-feeding.
In 2016, the company was criticized for censoring a Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of a young girl running naked after a napalm attack during the Vietnam War. Facebook rescinded its decision, saying, “In this case, we recognize the history and global importance of this image.”
Mr. Stamelos said he hoped Facebook would reconsider how it applied its policies to women and men, adding that he had seen the company take a harder line on its appeals recently. “This is extremely problematic, especially considering the magnitude of Facebook’s reach,” he said.
Ms. Venero, the author, never got a response from Facebook about why her ad was rejected and the body wash ad was approved, she said. A Facebook spokeswoman said the company could not ask an automated system about those decisions.
“I understand they have to prohibit content that really is disturbing,” Ms. Venero said. “But whatever their algorithms are that do this, or the humans in their department that look at these ads — they just aren’t consistent with it.”