These days, trains are delayed often enough for you to get a good look at whatever advertisements emblazon the subway walls. You might see ads for luxury scrubs or the city’s $15 minimum wage rollout, or perhaps ones for breast augmentation, birth control, or pitches for erectile dysfunction meds featuring limp cacti or simply the words “erectile dysfunction meds.” But you won’t be seeing ads for sex toys, as Dame Products has become the second sex toy company to have their ads considered and subsequently rejected by the MTA.
Dame Products, once deemed “the Glossier of Female Vibrators,” posted to Instagram on January 8 announcing the rejection, saying it was a “complete 180 from their initial agreement to work with us.” In a post on their website, they say they reached out about advertising with the MTA in July, were approved in September, and sent revised ads on November 2. Cue a response three weeks later saying they’d be “unable” to run the ads, citing a policy update made that same month that “prohibits any advertisement that promotes a sexually oriented business,” including “advertisements for sex toys or devices for any gender.” On December 3, they were rejected for good.
“I did expect road bumps, because nothing ever goes smoothly,” said Dame Products CEO Alex Fine. “Because [the MTA] had just said to the New York Times they were willing to work with Unbound, and they weren’t going to discriminate against female sexual pleasure, I thought oh, we were gonna figure it out.”
Unbound is a sex toy company that had their own MTA ad troubles back in May; their brightly-colored illustrations of feminine figures lounging with pink dildos and bathrooms with vibrators were deemed too obscene, predominantly due to “explicit images of sex toys.” The MTA’s advertising policy as of October 2017 prohibits “obscene material,” the “public display of offensive sexual material,” and anything that could be construed as “dissemination of indecent material to minors.”
After this news appeared in multiple publications, the MTA issued a statement to the New York Times that they would “work with [Unbound] toward a resolution” that “allows their ads on the system.”
Fine said her ads, which feature prominent sex toy imagery, didn’t draw the same criticism. “They didn’t have any issues with showing the product, which I thought was really interesting. Maybe if I just sold them as ‘massagers.’ I always want to be really upfront about what they are, but I definitely feel like the world prefers it to be coy.”
She said the feedback they received was more about the language used, preferring the matter-of-fact “toys, for sex” slogan rather than transit puns like “some riders need help getting off the train.” This “non-sexual” feedback made the rejection and new policy specifically against sex toys “even more surprising,” Fine said.
“It felt really random, it felt really targeted, it was really hurtful and rude, not just because they changed their policy but because they wasted so much of our time and money,” she added.
The MTA may not have been as willing to work with Unbound as they let on. In an email to Bedford + Bowery, Unbound’s co-founder and CEO Polly Rodriguez said Outfront Media, who handles advertising for the MTA, told them in order to receive “potential approval” they had to take all “phallic imagery” out of their ads.
She decided not to, saying it was “ridiculous” to have to pay their artists and go through the process again without an approval guarantee, and that it demonstrated a double standard.
Indeed, companies hawking ED meds like Roman and Hims (who also sells birth control through the company Hers, with subway ads of their own) told Broadly they had no problem getting their often phallic ads approved, noting they experienced a “great and open dialogue.”
In an emailed statement, MTA spokesperson Shams Tarek said the agency “has a long-standing policy that prohibits advertising promoting a sexually oriented business. This decision was reached after careful review and is consistent with the advertising standards set by the MTA Board.” Outfront Media directed any questions on the matter to the MTA, saying it was “their change in policy,” not Outfront’s.
Public transit isn’t the only place sex toy companies are experiencing interest, then the cold shoulder. This week Gizmodo reported that the CES Innovation Awards, which honors consumer technology, rescinded an award nomination given to a Lora DiCarlo sex toy developed using robotics and AI, calling it “‘immoral’ and ineligible.”
Though Unbound was no longer interested in working with the MTA, Fine says Dame would “100%” still want to advertise if given another chance.
“I would feel like I had to run [the ads],” she said, noting that when they first came to Kickstarter wanting to crowdfund for their first toy they were denied due to the website not allowing sex toys, but successfully returned in 2016 with a campaign for Fin, a vibrator you can slip on two fingers like a ring. It was the first sex toy to ever grace the crowdfunding platform.
“Those are the things I’m most proud of accomplishing,” Fine said, “making people see [the sex toy industry] in a different light.”