Dame Settles with the MTA in landmark advertising win for women’s sexual health

The Brooklyn-based startup will become the first female-founded pleasure product brand to be approved to advertise throughout the city’s public transportation.

Sexual wellness company, Dame Products, which sits in ASV as one of our portfolio startups, has won a nearly three-year legal battle to display ads throughout New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) subway system. The settlement represents historic progress for female-focused, sexually-oriented companies in advertising, as the Brooklyn-based startup will become the first female-founded pleasure product brand to be approved to advertise throughout the city’s public transportation.

Highlighting the disparity between men’s and women’s sexual health advertising

Dame had been in negotiations with the MTA since July 2018. The original ad campaign featured small vibrators and phrases including: “toys, for sex,” “you come first,” “91% of men get where they’re going while 60% of women…don’t,” and, ”thank you from the bottom of my vulva.” The campaign was declined by the MTA, citing its prohibitive guidelines around “sexually oriented businesses” displaying ads on their subways. Dame was quick to point out previously accepted advertisements included erectile dysfunction, dating services ads with suggestive images, the Museum of Sex, and male libido products; highlighting the disproportionate interpretation of their standards. Having invested $150,000 in the defunct ad campaign and suffering substantial economic losses from the rejection, Dame alleged that the MTA’s dismissal of Dame’s advertisements for sex toys was unconstitutional.

This is not the first time the MTA has displayed arbitrary decision making around ads publicized on its subways. It also shot down ads from Unbound, the women’s sex toy manufacturer, which retaliated, citing sexism and setting a gendered double standard. However, Unbound’s ads never ran after the MTA later demanded that the company change the “phallic symbols” in its ads. Period underwear, THINX, faced a similar rejection in 2015 for ads featuring dripping egg yolks and split fruit. Outfront Media, the agency that handles the subway system’s advertisements, raised flags during the evaluation process, but after media outcry, the ads were ultimately allowed. On the other end of the scale, just one month ago, Hims & Hers launched an ad campaign on the MTA subways with ease for an erectile dysfunction solution that states “Up made easy,” and “Rise to the occasion,” with pictures of men and women being intimate with one another.

Struggles in advertising go beyond the MTA to Facebook, Instagram and more

The advertising struggles in the female-focused sexual health space are not limited to restrictions from the MTA. Facebook, Instagram and other mainstream advertising channels have allowed male sexual health and wellness ads, while rejecting ads related to women’s sexual health and wellness. The Center for Intimacy Justice interviewed or surveyed over 50 startups in the women’s health and sexual health space impacted by ad rejections by technology platforms, and is launching upcoming actions to change Facebook’s advertising practices toward women’s health ads. To lobby for better clarity around the ad restrictions on these platforms, Dame Products and Unbound teamed up to launch the Approved, Not Approved campaign, which allows site visitors to decide which ads were accepted and which were rejected and then shows the shocking decisions made by the advertising platforms.

A victory for women’s sexual health and a move towards removing sexual shame

“Get In Touch With Yourself” is Dame’s largest brand awareness campaign to date, and will appear on MTA subway cars as early as this month. The brightly colored, abstract campaign has been approved to run through at least first quarter 2022, covering the holiday seasons, including Valentine’s Day. This victory demonstrates progress towards removing sexual shame and understanding sex as a societal norm; or as, Dame coins it, closing the pleasure gap. It is also a step forward in Dame’s mission to reduce the widespread cultural stigma around pleasure for people with vulvas. At ASV we couldn’t agree more when Dame Founder, Alexandra Fine, states, “hope it’s the beginning of a shift in understanding that these are health and wellness products and they have a positive impact on people’s lives.”

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