'Overtly sexual' cow blocked as Facebook ad

By Zoe Kleinman
Technology reporter

Published
image copyrightMike Hall / Northwall Gallery

The owner of a small digital photo gallery has had pictures of wildlife, landscapes and buildings blocked by Facebook for supposedly containing "overtly sexual" content.

Examples include a photo of the England cricket team in a huddle and one of a cow standing in a field.

The blocks happen when Mike Hall tries to use the images as Facebook ads.

Mr Hall said there was "nothing risque" about any of the 400 images on his business page.

Facebook told the BBC it was investigating the issue.

The following day a spokeswoman said Mr Hall's account had been restricted in error and the firm apologised for any inconvenience caused.

The Winchester-based photographer's other banned ad images include:

  • a neon sign featuring the word "disco", on the grounds that it was promoting alcohol
  • a set of tramlines in Reims, France, which Facebook said went against its ticket sales policy
  • a Hong Kong skyline, rejected on the grounds that there was "nothing for sale" in the photograph itself
  • a firework display, blocked for promoting weapons
  • ripples on a pond for selling "adult products"
  • another "overtly sexual" photo, of a high-rise office building

At one point, his entire account was suspended from placing any ads at all.

image copyrightMike Hall / Northwall Gallery
image captionThis sign was ruled to be promoting alcohol

He said on each occasion he had appealed, but had not had a response, and was unable to make contact with anyone at Facebook.

After the BBC contacted Facebook about the matter, the ads were reinstated.

"When you're running a small business, or any business where you're trying to figure out what's gone wrong, you can't have an arbitrary process with no-one to talk to," Mr Hall said.

"When I set up my account with Facebook I had to verify my business with them - but after that it fell into an abyss."

image copyrightMike Hall / Northwall Gallery
image captionToo sexy? The England cricket team in a huddle before a game

Google, on the other hand, had offered him a one-to-one clinic about how to navigate its advertising options, he added.

However, Mr Hall does not intend to abandon his Facebook efforts.

"I'll persevere," he said.

"You can't rely on Google alone, you need as many channels as possible - especially during the pandemic when you can't promote your work in public spaces or cafes."

Advertising makes up the vast majority of Facebook's revenue, and analysts say a large percentage of ad spend comes from small businesses rather than big brands.

The firm has also had to adapt its policies on carrying political ads, particularly around election times.

The tech giant blamed a "technical error" when it blocked thousands of campaign ads taken out both by Joe Biden and Donald Trump's teams in the run-up to the US presidential election in November 2020.

In 2019 it removed an advert by the Conservative Party which featured an image of a BBC News story, but misrepresented the content.

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