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Amy Buckalter didn't give it a second thought when she decided to use Facebook to advertise for her start-up, Pulse, in late 2017. Buckalter knew her male friends saw all sorts of raunchy ads addressing erectile dysfunction on Facebook constantly, so she figured her lubricant for women going through menopause would be just fine.
She was wrong.
For the past year and a half, Pulse has had most of its ads blocked by Facebook, and it is not alone. The Seattle start-up is one of several direct-to-consumer brands selling lubricants for women going through menopause that told CNBC they are prevented by Facebook from advertising on its service.
These companies claim their experiences show how Facebook is inconsistent with how it applies its policies to pick and choose which companies are allowed to advertise on the social network. Pulse, along with Genneve, Unbound and women's health expert Dr. Anna Cabeca say Facebook has a double standard that allows brands that target men to run ads but block the equivalent for women.
While male-focused brands like Roman and Hims are able to run ads with mentions of "premature ejaculation" or "E.D.," which stands for erectile dysfunction, Pulse and its peers have to be overly cautious about the terminology they pick. As expected, any mention of a reproductive organ is an automatic rejection, but many other terms often get vetoed.
"It has been a battle with Facebook. It has been basically gender bias with Facebook," Buckalter told CNBC. "And it's cost me money."
Facebook says it tries to walk a fine line with ads that address adult products.
"All ads are equally subject to our advertising policies, which are stricter than our community standards," a Facebook rep told CNBC, in a statement. "Facebook has long had a policy that limits ads with adult content and adult products in part because we take into account the wide array of people from varying cultures and countries who see them. We continue to review these specific ads."
Some companies affected by the perceived gender bias are able to advertise, but only after numerous rounds of appeals and several edits to meet Facebook's ever-shifting standards. Others, like Pulse and Unbound, say they are completely blocked from advertising on the social network no matter what they try.
"It's so messed up. Facebook sends us emails asking us to advertise, so then we go and try to and we get rejected," said Polly Rodriguez, CEO of New York-based Unbound. "Not being able to advertise is the most hindering, crippling component to running this business."
Genneve has had ads rejected for mentioning the symptoms of menopause, such as "hot flashes," "headaches," "crazy moods" and "no sleep." Cabeca, which sells a product called Julva, said she has had ads rejected for mentioning "sexual health," "lubricant" or simply "menopause."
"It seems like a double standard," Cabeca said. "Many of the ads that get by for men — if we did that in the same context for a female product, it doesn't seem like they get by."
In one instance in October 2017, Pulse had an ad that said simply "Doctor, what's happening to me?" along with a link to a Q&A article about a doctor explaining perimenopause, the period before a woman begins menopause.
"You see these other ads for male libido-enhancing products, lots of ads for condoms, we saw grotesque ads for K-Y Jelly, and yet, our Q&A post with a doctor was rejected," said Julia Christman, strategist with Lazar Marketing, which works with Pulse.
Facebook ad moderators cite the company's advertising policies as the reason for their rejections, screenshots of messages between Facebook and the companies show. Most often, moderators cite the company's ban on ads for adult products or services, specifically ads that "promote the sale or use of adult products or services, except for ads for family planning and contraception."
Yet, Facebook does not seem to block ads on a consistent basis. In at least one instance, the brand Revaree has been able to advertise using the words "vaginal dryness," a term that typically gets rejected. K-Y, meanwhile, has been able to advertise using the term "lubrication" and "extra lube K-Y Condoms." And although the term "menopause" is typically rejected, there have been instances in which Genneve has been able to use it in its ads, said Genneve CEO Jill Angelo, adding that Facebook's processes are "somewhat arbitrary and inconsistent."
"The responses we continue to receive are completely unacceptable and feel so discriminatory," Angelo said.
Although these companies' lubricants can be used for sex, the products are also intended to help women for other reasons. Angelo said that these products are used by women for exercise or daily comfort as a way to moisturize. Angelo added that vaginal dryness is experienced by women going through menopause as well as women who are breastfeeding and those who have gone through cancer treatment.
"That's so far from anything adult or pornographic," Angelo said. "That's so far from anything I thought would ever be censored on such a large social platform like Facebook."
Zachariah Reitano, CEO of Roman told CNBC in a statement that there's still a stigma attached to sexual health companies.
"Unfortunately, as far as we've come, there are still deep rooted stigmas attached to certain aspects of health that prevent important and groundbreaking companies from telling their story, particularly for women's health," he said. "Unbound and Dame are two powerful examples of this and another strong reminder that there is still a tremendous amount of work to do."
A major difference between these companies and their male equivalents lays in how much funding they've raised, Rodriguez of Unbound said.
Pulse, Genneve and Unbound have raised $8.7 million, $1.3 million and $3.5 million respectively. Roman and Hims, by comparison, have raised $91.1 million and $197 million respectively, according to Crunchbase.
"When you have that kind of money, Facebook is going to work with you," Rodriguez said.