How Camino used PR to change Twitter’s advertising policies (and help prevent HIV!)
While the idea that “sex sells” is nothing new — sexuality has been present in advertising since at least the 1800’s — advertisers, and the media companies giving them a platform, have often created and followed contradictory standards for regulating the acceptable marketing of both adult products and of sexual-health related products.Over the last few decades old media conglomerates have begun to modernize their policies, but not all have been so quick to respond; one very modern platform has stubbornly — and surprisingly — insisted on outdated advertising attitudes: Twitter.
In the spring of 2014, Twitter rejected condom advertising from global condom expert Lucky Bloke, citing an internal policy that bans “adult sexual products and services;” the ban included all contraceptives. At Twitter’s advertising department, contraceptives fall under the same restrictions as illegal drugs, weapons, and hate-based content. Lucky Bloke was notified that their entire account was ineligible and it was promptly blocked from Twitter’s advertising program.
Below is a snapshot of the Lucky Bloke sponsored ad that triggered the Twitter ban due to “sexually explicit content”:
Twitter responded to the tweet as follows:
“Twitter’s ad policy is dangerous and irresponsible. To prohibit condoms and, by default, categorize them with weapons and hate speech sends out a deeply troubling and stigmatizing message. Further, it handicaps organizations and businesses that are committed to improving access to safer sex information and products,” said Melissa White, CEO and founder of Lucky Bloke. “In the battle against sexually transmitted infections and unintended pregnancies, condoms are the first line of defense. If you prohibit content about condoms on such a global platform, you are restricting efforts to save lives.”
Studies have shown that if a condom doesn’t fit properly, men are less likely to use them. Lucky Bloke preemptively responds to this need by advising customers on how to choose proper-fitting condoms in order to increase pleasure and consistent condom use — and thus increase protection from sexually transmitted infections and unintended pregnancy. This is Lucky Bloke’s central message, which they sought to disseminate using the global power of Twitter’s advertising platform.
Although Melissa White reached out to Twitter for clarification on their advertising policy, Twitter gave no further response or explanation.
Realizing that there was an opportunity to change the status quo, Melissa and Lucky Bloke turned to Camino Public Relations to create the #Tweet4Condoms campaign. The campaign called on Twitter to change the stigmatizing policies that prevent companies and nonprofits that promote sexual health from advertising, with a specific focus on condom advertisements.
How did the campaign fare?
In March 2015, nine months after the launch of the #Tweet4Condoms campaign, Twitter changed their advertising policy to allow organizations like Lucky Bloke to advertise. Camino, in partnership with Lucky Bloke, was able to harness the power of strategic communications to advance sound and responsible health care policy.
The campaign successfully positioned Lucky Bloke as a forward-thinking advocate for smart and effective condom usage and education. Both reporters and sexual health advocates came to view Lucky Bloke’s brand and mission through a social justice lens: a for-profit company that sincerely cares about sexual health and proper condom usage.
The campaign included traditional media, social media, and partnership outreach, resulting in a potential audience reach of more than 4.4 million in traditional media, according to Vocus tracking. A robust social media campaign that activated partners and allies internationally, including:
2,494 tweets that mentioned #Tweet4Condoms with 6,093,623 impressions (i.e., total number of times tweets were delivered to timelines with #Tweet4Condoms), according to Tweet Archivist.
Engagement on Twitter from organizations like Planned Parenthood (121K Followers), NARAL Pro-Choice America (36.5K Followers), Bedsider (47.8K Followers) and Advocates for Youth (10.2K Followers).
A retweet on Twitter from actor, writer and fashion designer Margaret Cho (347K Followers); and a retweet from advocate and author Dan Savage (190.9K Followers).
A tweet in Spanish by YouTube news host Chumel Torres to his 262K Followers.
A response from Twitter that further activated partnerships and continued the conversation.
A Change.org petition with 812 signatures. RH Reality Check started their own petition calling Twitter to stop policies that inhibit sexual health promotion, which was featured as a sidebar on every article on their website for weeks — generating an additional 4,800 signatures beyond Lucky Bloke’s own petition.
Various organizations, both nonprofits and for-profit companies, came forward to discuss how social media platforms have censored their ads, building a national conversation about how these policies inhibit crucial sexual health advocacy
With a 2013 annual revenue of $665 million, Twitter has both the market reach and cash to advance social change — and also inhibit it. Twitter positioned itself as a barrier to the health and safety of its users by putting condoms in the same category as pornography and sex toys. Camino worked to change that.
Not only did Twitter equate condom ads to pornography and hate speech, they rejected any attempts to discuss or negotiate the issue. After seven months of persistent pressure from the campaign launched by Lucky Bloke and Camino, Twitter changed its policies.
Our campaign was designed to bring to light the destructive nature of Twitter’s policy while urging Twitter to change its policies broadly. The cornerstone of the campaign was an insightful and targeted opinion piece authored by Melissa White. The op-ed framed the problem and positioned Melissa and Lucky Bloke’s brand as forward-thinking advocates for smart and effective condom usage. A petition campaign was launched simultaneously to give advocates and allies a way to take action. Finally, a robust social media campaign garnered the support of Lucky Bloke’s key partners and spread the narrative across several of their high-profile social media properties.
This mix of concurrent strategies helped drive reporters, columnists, advocates, influencers, and policymakers to examine the lack of condom education and the stigma that social media platforms were creating through their advertising policies.
The goals of the campaign included:
Establish Melissa White and Lucky Bloke as thought leaders and the go-to experts on condoms and condom education.
Pressure Twitter to remove condoms from the “sexual products and services” category (which includes sexual aids and toys, pornography and prostitution).
Help Lucky Bloke sell more condoms — and highlight the company’s unique place at the intersection of pleasure, relationships, sexual health and education.
Although Lucky Bloke was the first to publicly challenge the Twitter policy, we knew others were frustrated. Given these dynamics, Camino proposed a 3-pronged approach:
Create a strong online story that could spur and frame social media conversations. The campaign launched with an editorial by Lucky Bloke President Melissa White.
Connect with the network of sexual health advocates and allies and provide easy ways for them to show support, including assets such as a petition drive and ready-made social media posts.
Custom pitch the most aligned reporters and outlets. This was designed for a long slow build, with each story creating more pressure and attracting more outrage from Twitter users.
Thought leadership positioning: The cornerstone of the campaign was an insightful and targeted opinion piece in RH Reality Check that positioned Melissa White and Lucky Bloke’s brand as forward-thinking advocates for smart and effective condom usage.
Petition launch: To support the piece, a petition campaign was launched simultaneously to give advocates and allies a way to take action.
Media outreach and reporter education: Press release distribution as well as media pitching to reporters about the campaign. Because condom use, stigma, pleasure and education are all long-term issues, the campaign was framed in a larger, intersectional conversation.
Partnership building: The campaign engaged partner organizations in sexual health, tech and other issue areas, in addition to activating Melissa White’s already vast network of allies (e.g., condom companies, sexual health bloggers). Partners received: ready-made social media posts for sharing; details and updates about the campaign; as well as links to the petition.
Social media and visuals: Social media and the campaign hashtag #Tweet4Condoms was a powerful tool to increase partner engagement, generate awareness, share media successes, and call on Twitter and CEO Dick Costolo directly. The campaign included many visuals as well.
This mix of concurrent strategies helped drive reporters, columnists, advocates, influencers, and policymakers to examine the nonsensical educational approach of disassociating condoms from pleasure and the stigma that social media platforms were creating through their advertising policies.
During the early stages of preparation, Camino worked closely with Melissa to transition messaging from product promotion to a blended product/social good message frame. We facilitated discussions with Lucky Bloke about the importance of the campaign serving the interests of sexual health broadly. This shared vision helped drive the creation of our initial media materials.
The campaign began with a powerful but targeted outlet, RH Reality Check. The choice to target RH Reality Check was a strategic one. The outlet is a stallworth among advocates of sexual health and would lend the campaign the authenticity it needed among those groups. The strength of this placement helped the story reach strong national brands such as The Atlantic Magazine and Mother Jones.
RH Reality Check generated quotes from national leaders and from Twitter that significantly propelled the campaign. The article included a response from Twitter as well as a quote from Advocates for Youth President Debra Hauser.
“Lucky Bloke’s ad was rejected because it violated our policy, not because they are a condom manufacturer,” a Twitter spokesperson told RH Reality Check over email, linking to the “adult or sexual products and services” policy page. “Condom manufacturers are allowed to advertise on Twitter, along with safer sex education and HIV/STD awareness campaigns. For example, Durex (@durexlovesex) and Bedsider (@bedsider) have both advertised on Twitter
“Condoms in and of themselves are used for sex. How can you disconnect them from sexual content? … It’s impossible to do good sex ed or to help young people, or anybody, feel comfortable using contraception if you’re medicalizing it to such an extent that it’s only about disease prevention or pregnancy prevention,” Hauser said. “It’s really about healthy sexuality and intimacy and relationships. And those things are important if you’re trying to sell the idea of prevention.”
Soon after that article, other organizations — such as Bedsider, Momdoms and STD Project — spoke up about similar issues with Twitter Ads. As a result, RH Reality Check published a follow-up piece called More Companies Speak Out About Twitter Censoring Condom, Sexual Health Info in Ads.
The blogosphere begin picking up the campaign and the petition found its way to many websites and blogs, such as Manpacks, Go Kicker and Social News Daily. A ThinkProgress article on the campaign included an interview with White and a response from a Twitter spokesperson, to which reporter Tara Culp-Ressler said, “The spokesperson did not clarify how Twitter determines what counts as ‘sexual content’ or how Lucky Bloke’s ad differed from the sponsored tweets from the other condom manufacturers.”
The campaign was also successful in generating media beyond the specifics of the campaign. A BuzzFeed Community article and an RH Reality Check article about why condom use is still lacking in various communities — for example youth — mentioned Lucky Bloke’s campaign in the context of censorship of condom ads, and the negative impact censorship has on sexual health advocacy.
Camino targeted dozens of select reporters with a demonstrated interest in these issues directly via phone and email. The campaign helped spur coverage in the following outlets, resulting in a total potential audience reach of more than 4.4 million. A list of articles published about the campaign is provided at the end of this post.
Our social media campaign was built to harness Lucky Bloke’s existing network of sexual health advocates, educators and allies — and to foster new partnerships as well.
Camino developed a social media “cheat sheet” for partners that contained the campaign’s core messages and ready-made social media posts. This guide was shared with partners and allies, allowing them to quickly engage with the campaign and distribute the campaign’s main message across social media channels.
On social media, the campaign hashtag #Tweet4Condoms was used in 2,494 tweets with 6,093,623 impressions, according to Tweet Archivist. Influential organizations in the sexual health arena, such as Planned Parenthood (121K Followers), NARAL Pro-Choice America (36.5K Followers), Bedsider (47.8K Followers), Advocates for Youth (10.2K Followers) and Business 2 Community (56.4K followers) joined the hashtag — allowing key influencers to see Lucky Bloke not just as a condom company, but as one with a social mission to stop the stigma around condoms use.
Other influential accounts using the hashtag included a retweet from advocate and author Dan Savage (190,888 Followers) and a tweet in Spanish by YouTube news host Chumel Torres to his 262K Followers.
A little help from Twitter
A particular opportunity to build Lucky Bloke’s brand occurred when a Twitter spokesperson responded to the campaign with the following statement:
“Lucky Bloke’s ad was rejected because it violated our policy, not because they are a condom manufacturer,” a Twitter spokesperson told RH Reality Check over email, linking to the “adult or sexual products and services” policy page. “Condom manufacturers are allowed to advertise on Twitter, along with safer sex education and HIV/STD awareness campaigns. For example, Durex (@durexlovesex) and Bedsider (@bedsider) have both advertised on Twitter.”
Because Bedsider is an ally of Lucky Bloke, Bedsider decided to come out publicly in response to this campaign — generating another follow-up piece, “More Companies Speak Out About Twitter Censoring Condom, Sexual Health Info in Ads,” with this prominent quote about Lucky Bloke:
“They’ve asked us not to talk about sex in a way that is overtly pleasurable, if you will,” Larry Swiader, director of digital media at the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, which operates Bedsider, said. “It’s a funny request because sex is pleasurable, it should be, and it’s healthy when it is. So it puts people in a bind, especially somebody like Melissa [White, CEO of Lucky Bloke], whose business model is built around the idea that people disassociate pleasure from condoms, and that’s part of the reason people don’t use them.”
In January 2015 Twitter shifted condoms to a new category. “Ads for non-prescription contraceptive products such as condoms and spermicides, and ads for personal lubricants, now fall under our health and pharmaceutical products and services policy,” a spokesperson told RH Reality Check. They then notified Lucky Bloke that their advertising privileges were reinstated. Within eight months of launching the campaign, Lucky Bloke had fostered historic change at Twitter and was able to resume its advertising strategies.
The campaign was successful: Twitter has changed their advertising policy. Additionally, we helped build Lucky Bloke’s brand and position the company as forward-thinking and innovate. The campaign shows the power of strategic communications as a tool to equaling the playing field and creating positive change.
“Twitter Faces Renewed Criticism for Condom Ad Policies,” Rh Reality Check, August 22.
“Is Twitter’s Condom Policy Too Tight?” Washingtonian, August 18.
“The Much Maligned Condom: Why We Can’t Be Surprised Use Is Down Among Teens,” RH Reality Check, June 30.
“Twitter Hates Condom Ads, Leading To #Tweet4Condoms Campaign,” Social News Daily, June 14.
“Condom Companies: Twitter Is Censoring Us,” Mother Jones, June 13.
“12 Ways You Know There’s A Huge (Magnum) Conspiracy Against Condoms,” BuzzFeed, June 12.
“Speak Out Against Twitter’s Censorship of Sexual Health Info,” Be A Sex Educator, June 11.
“#TwitterWTF? Let’s change their condom stance,” Condom Monologues, June 5.
“TWEET THIS ARTICLE TO @DICKC & @TWITTERADS – #TWEET4CONDOMS,” Sex Sells – Detroit, June 5.
“Petition to Stop Twitter from Censoring Ads about Safer Sex,” The STD Project, June 5.
“Controversy of the Day – #Tweet4Condoms,” Go Kicker, June 5.
“Let’s Change Twitter’s Anti-Condom Stance #Tweet4Condoms,” Manpacks, June 4.
“More Companies Speak Out About Twitter Censoring Condom, Sexual Health Info in Ads,” RH Reality Check, June 5.
“Does Twitter Have a Problem With Condoms?” Jezebel, June 4.
“Twitter Banned My Company From Promoting Safe Condom Use,” RH Reality Check, June 4.
“Twitter Is Being Pressured To Stop Censoring Ads About Condoms,” ThinkProgress, June 4.
“Twitter Bans Company From Advertising Condoms, Citing ‘Adult or Sexual Products’ Policy (Updated),” RH Reality Check, June 4.
Melissa White’s op-ed, republished in POZ.