Seattle startup promoting women entrepreneurs is puzzled by Facebook’s ban of its ads

Susan Gates (left) and Kate Isler, co-founders of TheWMarketplace. (TheWMarketplace Photo)The TheWMarketplace, a Seattle-based platform promoting women and diverse entrepreneurs, was excited to feature Askanya Chocolates and its Haitian founder on social media. It was perfect for the pre-holiday push. They had beautiful images of the chocolatiers and messages of inspiration and women’s empowerment.
The ad was seemingly inoffensive to anyone — except, it turns out, the algorithms at Facebook and Instagram.
Since early December, TheWMarketplace has submitted the paid ad for posting on the social media sites, had it rejected, revised the ad and had it rejected again.
“I don’t get it,” said Kate Isler, CEO and co-founder of TheWMarketplace. “There is nothing political about this. It just speaks to that darned gender parity thing.”
TheWMarketplace tried to run ads promoting a Haitian chocolate vendor, but they were blocked by Facebook. After an initial ad was flagged, they tried again and failed with this second version. (TheWMarketplace Image)As the election polls closed on Nov. 3, Facebook stopped running “social issue, electoral and political ads” in order to “reduce opportunities for confusion or abuse.” It described social issues as “sensitive topics that are heavily debated, may influence the outcome of an election or result in/relate to existing or proposed legislation.”
But Isler and co-founder Susan Gates weren’t sure how the policy might encompass Black women selling chocolates. They received automated rejections with vague language after submitting their ads.
“Your ad may have been rejected if it mentions politicians or sensitive social issues that could influence public opinion, how people vote and may impact the outcome of an election or pending legislation,” read the response from Facebook.
After being contacted by GeekWire, Facebook reviewed the ads and discovered they had been incorrectly flagged. They are now approved for posting.
TheWMarketplace received this notice from Facebook when its ads were blocked.TheWMarketplace is not alone in being inexplicably muted on the platform. The New York Times reported last month on a wide range of small businesses and nonprofits that intersect with refugees, disadvantaged youth and foreign-based merchants or organizations that were having their ads blocked. Bloomberg also reported on small businesses swept up in the ad bans, impacting holiday sales.
It’s unclear when the new policy restricting these types of promotions will be lifted. Facebook provides an option for requesting a second review of a rejected ad in its Ads Manager and Business Manager tools.
“We’ve had to make difficult decisions to protect the integrity of the election, which is why we have temporarily paused ads about social issues, politics or elections. We know this may be disappointing for some businesses and apologize for any disruption. Businesses that believe their ads were flagged incorrectly, can request an additional review,” a Facebook spokesperson said in an email to GeekWire.
This Facebook ad featuring TheWMarketplace platform made the cut. (TheWMarketplace Image)Facebook defines social issues by country and gives examples of language that require extra steps to pass muster. In the U.S., including the phrase “It’s time for us all to stand up and demand equal rights for women” would require authorization of the source and a disclaimer about who paid for the ad, while “We have over 100 newly-published books about systemic racism and Black History now on sale” can run as is.
Facebook has been hammered this year over how it regulates its platform. Major advertisers upset about hate speech boycotted the site this summer. Facebook’s efforts to battle disinformation and misinformation were criticized as ineffective, in the case of its online ad library, and too little too late in its post-election restrictions on political ads.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, as well as Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, appeared before U.S. lawmakers last month to defend his company’s policing of information.
Facebook is also facing a pair of antitrust lawsuits filed earlier this month by the Federal Trade Commission over alleged “illegal monopolization” and anticompetitive conduct.
TheWMarketplace, which launched in September, had been running ads that promoted its marketplace and hadn’t run into any problems. In fact, the ads performed well, helping quintuple traffic.
The Askanya Chocolates ad was their first effort to showcase one of the 215 vendors currently on the site.
“The whole purpose of our platform is to promote our amazing sellers,” said Gates, chief marketing officer at TheWMarketplace. “It’s really frustrating.”
Complaints from companies over Facebook’s ad policies date back several years. Seattle women’s health startups Pulse and Genneve (which has since rebranded as Gennev) were fed up with Facebook last year, for example, after it prevented the companies from buying advertisements.
“While this may seem trivial, I think it speaks to a much large issue both on race and gender,” Isler said. She wants “to bring visibility to the fact that a male-owned business is arbitrating our ability to promote women, gender equality and black-women owned businesses and categorizing them as ‘sensitive social issues.’”

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