Facebook counters claims it 'banned' NZ period underwear ad showing menstrual blood for 'shocking, sensational, content'

The creators of local period underwear brand AWWA say they're appealing to Facebook to "normalise the conversation around periods" after the social media giant rejected a paid advertisement showing real period blood. 

But Facebook is countering the claims, stating the ad is allowed to run in full across its organic platforms, while "strict guidelines" mean it exists in a censored, cut-down version across its commercial sector. 

AWWA creates a variety of underwear styles designed to allow period blood to absorb right into the fabric - in the case of the style being advertised, replacing up to five regular pads or tampons.

Co-founders Kylie Matthews and Michele Wilson aimed to showcase this with a new "realistic" television commercial as part of their brand campaign which shows two flatmates "menstruating in synchronicity" during lockdown.

In the clip, one of the women portrayed uses period underwear while the other uses single-use period products. Images of both women show real blood running down the drain in the shower, on pads going into the bin or being rung out of the underwear into the sink. 

"The honest portrayal reveals the emotions and normalities experienced during menstruation, including real blood," a statement from the company read. 

The ad is reportedly on video outlets TVNZ OnDemand and Youtube, but the founders claim social media giant Facebook banned it from playing due to its 'Shock and Scare' policy. 

"AWWA was told by Facebook's policy team that the ad's content 'violates the Shock and Scare policy, so the ad remains disapproved'," the founders claim. 

The policy states that Facebook ads "must not contain shocking, sensational, disrespectful or excessively violent content". Rejected ad content that falls under this policy includes violence, mutilation, torture and graphic medical procedures.

The founders say they reject the idea their ad fits these criteria, and say they reached out to Spencer Bailey, Head of Facebook New Zealand, but didn't receive a response. 

But a spokesperson for Facebook told Newshub that while the video is able to run in full across AWWA's social platforms, a stricter set of guidelines around commercial advertising and paid amplification means a cut down version of the ad also exists on the site. 

"Encouraging open discussion about the issues that women face is important to me personally and to our values at Facebook," Antonia Sanda, Head of Communications at Facebook New Zealand told Newshub.

"We know these issues are complicated, and our team has been working closely with AWWA to advise how to run this campaign on our platforms. 

"The AWWA campaign video is running in full on the AWWA Facebook and IG page. A cut down version of the video is also running as paid content on our platform." 

AWWA's team say their intention was never to shock or offend viewers.

"As many will recall, we grew up watching period ads that made us feel embarrassed about having a period. The elephant in the room, the actual period, was always absent from these ads," says Holly Dean McDaniel, AWWA global brand director, adding the brand was "challenging the status quo" and "sparking positive conversations".

Michele Wilson, AWWA co-founder and CEO, says it's "disappointing" Facebook doesn't want to "normalise the conversation around periods". 

"The aim of AWWA's campaign was to remove the stigma and taboos from what is a perfectly normal bodily function that half the population experience," she said. 

"It wasn't meant to be deliberately shocking or sensational but to show the realities that many of us face on a monthly basis. 

"We are passionate about removing the shame and secrecy around menstruation, and instead celebrate periods as our Māori Tunpuna (ancestors) would." 

The AWWA campaign is not the first period product advertisement to create controversy in recent weeks. 

According to an Advertising Standards Authority report from last month, a campaign for period underwear from competing brand Libra featuring the words "wear, bleed, wash, repeat" with accompanying imagery was a source of numerous complaints.

Twenty-two complaints were received by the ASA for the television ads, which included a shot of a woman's hands wringing out what appeared to be water and menstrual blood from a pair of underwear.

The complainants were concerned the ads were offensive, especially if seen at dinner time, and one complainant said the ad was not culturally sensitive.

The Complaints Board did not uphold the complaints. 

Since posting a video of its television ad on its Instagram, AWWA has had an outpouring of support from commenters around Aotearoa and the world. 

"I love this so much. No weird blue water! Ataahua," wrote Three's own Kanoa Lloyd. 

"Mīharo! this really shows the way in which AWWA is encouraging embracing our ikura to be something we connect with in an authentic way," wrote Auckland yoga instructor Samantha Veitch. 

Another commenter called it "beautiful and empowering".