Date: January 8, 2017 Category: ,

Published in Pics or It Didn’t Happen: Images Banned From Instagram, Prestel Publishing, 2017
Edited by Molly Soda and Arvida Bystrom.

Early last summer, pastel-hued advertisements were scattered across several central access subway stations in Brooklyn and lower Manhattan. The campaign was for THINX, a new apparel brand that is producing absorbent underwear “for women with periods,” as the brand’s tagline professes. In creating a novel microfiber design that claims to instantly soak up any potential leakage, THINX promises days long dryness and protection regardless of one’s use of ordinary feminine hygiene products such as tampons and panty liners.

To hone in on the product’s self-proclaimed innovation, the ads themselves stylistically mimicked those created for present-day digital commodities, in that they put a fertile twist on the sterile minimalism often associated with tech industry branding. Models of various ethnicities and body types were photographed frozen in mid-motion, quite similar to how an iPhone—stationary in the majority of Apple Inc.’s ads—still appears energized against the technology company’s signature white background. The yolk and clear albumen of an oozing, cracked egg was used throughout the campaign as a metaphor for ovulation. And in an ode to Georgia O’Keeffe, hyper-detailed shots of a grapefruit became a tongue-in-cheek depiction of the female anatomy.

Such visual signifiers worked to provide THINX with a more conceptual brand identity, one which distinguished the newcomer from marketplace staples like Tampax and it’s generic siblings. While Tampax ads are notoriously coy and unrealistic, utilizing a mysterious blue liquid in lieu of blood, THINX ads are authentic, approaching bodily functions with a level of pragmatic chicness afforded by the brand’s association to an of the moment, fashion-meets-technology subculture. Instead of asking those menstruating to live life on the edge, perpetually searching for a restroom to freshen up, THINX is attempting to streamline a woman’s entire monthly cycle, allowing them to unabashedly free bleed without suffering any potentially embarrassing consequences.

In light of this, it seems obvious that THINX would be adept at online marketing. Sure enough, just as the ads augmented my daily underground commute, they began to flood (no pun intended) mostly all of my social media feeds. On Facebook, sponsored articles pinged back to content aggregators like Dazed Digital and Vice appeared on my timeline ritualistically, with each publication heralding the product for it’s seditious originality. On Instagram, recent uploads posted by THINX’s official account were targeted directly to me; each browse of the app summoned a new image and therefore a new, conclusive reminder to purchase the product.

Campaigning à la THINX has recently refueled conversations surrounding commodity feminism, a subset of the broader feminist discourse that has remained, since the early 1960’s, concerned with how, and why, specific feminist persuasions are extracted by brands for their commercial potential. The current interest in this topic is directly related to the ubiquitous use of social media platforms, where much of present-day conversations on identity politics are originating alongside viral marketing tactics. As many of the most popular social networks are still in part funded by the sale of user specific data to advertisers, it is only in a social media corporation’s best interest to promote ads that are socially engaged and inherently representative of the issues users care about. Ads that imitate user ideologies, like THINX, are more likely to be shared and therefore more likely to generate revenue for the platform through a continued brand-to-platform relationship.

It would be foolish for marketers to ignore the effectiveness of commodity feminism. Women hold the highest purchasing power in today’s economy, and campaigns are more likely to be successful if they are able to genuinely portray their realities. Conceivably, this is the underlying motivation that has called upon advertisers to use “real” women instead of “models”—real women are relatable while models are capitalist clichés that most young feminists are eager to write off as no more than mannequins, upholding the same impossible body standards that left them traumatized after outings to Abercrombie & Fitch in junior high. In relation to the social media feed space, the marketer’s goal, it seems, is to create as little distinction possible between a female user’s post and the ad itself. The THINX brand in particular has this concept down pat: The campaign isn’t asking menstruating women to hide the reality of their blood, it is instead giving them a platform, through advantageous consumerism, to socially normalize a reality once viewed as conventionally undignified. This is not unlike the self-deprecating style of content that has grown popular on Twitter, heralded by hilariously reprehensible prolific users like Melissa Broder (@SoSadToday) and Darcie Wilder (@333333333433333).

Ironically enough, a mere few months before the THINX frenzy, something suspicious happened. Visual artist and Instagram sensation Rupi Kaur had a series of photographs of a fully-clothed model, lightly stained with period blood, twice removed from the platform as a violation of its terms of service. Kaur’s work is distinctly feminine, using the soft lighting and pastel coloring that has allowed brands like THINX to appear unassumingly authentic. Such nuanced comparisons bring about a crucial question: Why is it that feminist-leaning ad campaigns are allowed to grow massively popular on social media platforms, but user generated content of a similar nature are often always censored?
Facebook, the world’s largest social network with over 3-billion active users, has been fixated on promoting social conventionalities since it’s inception. This fundamental aspect of Facebook’s brand didn’t change when the corporation announced plans to purchase stand-alone mobile imaging app Instagram for $1B USD shortly after its IPO in April, 2012. A progressive yet calculated move, founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg saw potential for the then startup to contribute to his enterprise in ways that were still exploratory. Threatened by Instagram’s loyal following and iPhone specific network of 27-million users, Facebook was looking to minimize competition in the growing market for social photography. On the day of the acquisition, Zuckerberg posted the following status update on his personal profile:

“For years, we’ve focused on building the best experience for sharing photos with your friends and family. Now, we’ll be able to work even more closely with the Instagram team to also offer the best experiences for sharing beautiful mobile photos with people based on your interests.”

Of this announcement, “friends” and “family” are the most distinct terminologies, concretizing the traditional values behind Facebook’s ethos.

As such, both Instagram and Facebook’s community guidelines explicitly state that users themselves own the content they share; a social photograph wouldn’t be “social” if it wasn’t allowed to accurately portray that user’s lifestyle. However, simply owning content doesn’t mean that it’s safe from censorship, or even in the user’s authority once they’ve made the conscious decision to click the post button. An image that threatens Facebook’s mission to create the ultimate family-friendly scrapbook is likely to be shunned—this includes any image that contains sex, nudity or similar impressions deemed as profane. Is it appropriate for sexualized images shared by adults to circulate on a platform that also allows 13-year olds to build meme groups? Probably not, at least according to Facebook’s moderators, who, alongside algorithmic systems that scan photographs, are tasked with flagging and removing images posted in opposition to Facebook’s regulations.

It is important to consider that the primary goal of data mining companies, especially those that re-sell user information to marketers, has always been to achieve a vernacular reach: The 13-year old meme admin is as important as the horny dad serial liking Maxim articles, as both are capable consumers. So, even if Instagram’s initial intent was to bolster user creativity, facilitating the means for a specific user to have an individual identity is a minuscule component of the Facebook experience when compared against the profit potential of the community as a whole.

On Facebook, a user’s content becomes more valuable if it is able to pinpoint that user into a more specific market demographic, as determined by individual choices. This is why Facebook users are prompted to include social indicators on their profiles, like their gender, sexul orentation, religion, political affiliation, place of employment, and cities lived and traveled. In providing Facebook with personal details, users are in turn rewarded with more friend recommendations, heightened visibility, and subsequently, attention—a fair trade for the system’s ability to accurately position and target them.

In terms of what gets censored, all users who break the rules are equally subject. In 2014, recording artist Rihanna’s Instagram account was temporarily shut down by the platform’s algorithms—much to her fans outrage—after the artist self-published revealing photographs her backside. Meanwhile, her record label Def Jam actively monetizes her often demure appearance through ad integrated video content, specifically the Google owned hosting service VEVO, which is disseminated by YouTube and out-linked to the corporate Facebook pages of their artists, Rihanna included. By limiting Facebook’s prospect of yielding earnings from Rihanna’s sex appeal, the platform’s algorithms saw little incentive within encouraging her self expression. This example points to an obvious contrasting principle: While individuality may be in jeopardy, branded, billable content almost never is.

Facebook already knew that I would be an ideal user of THINX’s product. Perhaps it is my prime child-bearing age, 28, or the fact that my profile indicates I’m a cis woman. Perhaps it’s because I live in Brooklyn, enjoy the occasional noise show, and have once seen an episode of Girls, that screams: “this user is alternative and will most likely appreciate the campaign’s feminist undertones.” I’m not sure how specific Facebook’s psychoanalysis is, but all manners of my research have indicated that whatever the process, it’s creepily accurate.

If Kaur’s images had been part of THINX’s campaign, would they still have been flagged? American First Amendment attorney and anti-censorship advocate Lawrence Walters believes that censorship, especially online, has become fully privatized: “With no constitutional restrictions to rein them in, giant, multi-billion dollar companies end up making critical decisions on what content the general public can see, read, and hear. The corporations making these decisions are now more powerful than most countries, at least when it comes to being the gatekeepers of communication.” Walters continues to insist that the only way to avoid censorship is to align your content with the social media network least likely to censor it.

Yet self-selecting to evade censorship isn’t the only solution; users must demand that corporations like Facebook better consider their social motivations beyond that of their ties to consumerism. An important point to raise is that all technologies, digital or otherwise, will always be coded with basis of its creators. To date, Facebook has been unable to design algorithms that are impartial to the corporation’s morally conservative agenda. Perhaps the only way to promote self expression, removed from profit, is to change the platforms flagging systems from the ground up. This could mean developing algorithms that are, quite literally, trained to be more understanding of women who bleed.