Spotify's about-face on abortion ads
How post-Roe politics are have created upheaval for platform policies
Today let’s talk about a controversy over an abortion ad, and what it reveals about the confusion that has resulted from the Supreme Court overturning Roe vs. Wade earlier this year.
Mayday Health is a nonprofit organization with a straightforward mission: “to share info about how to access safe abortion pills in any state.” Its website walks people through how to safely obtain pills while obscuring their digital footprint, and its aggressive advertising tactics in recent weeks have drawn scrutiny from anti-abortion advocates. In August, the attorney general of Mississippi subpoenaed the organization after it put up three billboards reading “Pregnant? you still have a choice.” (They just put up similar billboards in Idaho.)
On Sept. 30, the organization tried to get its message out a different way: by buying ads on Spotify. But a few days later the ad, which promoted access to abortion pills, was rejected.
“I think the only way we could launch this is if the ads and the landing page are much more general about health care providers and options,” a Spotify ad reviewer wrote to the organization, according to emails shared with Platformer. “The mention of any abortion services on any piece of creative will likely not get approved in Ad Studio. Sorry this is so rigid! Let us know if you have any other questions.”
Spotify’s posted advertising policies do not appear to ban abortion services, though “contraception” is placed in a “restricted” category that requires additional review. In another email to Mayday, though, Spotify’s ad reviewer suggested that abortion ads are banned.
“As of right now, this is currently prohibited within our policies: Abortion products and service, abortion providers, and pregnancy counseling, does not include standard OB/GYN providers. We unfortunately can’t accept this campaign at the moment but we’ll let you know if that changes!”
After Platformer inquired about the discrepancy, Spotify said the rejection had been an error and that the ad would be allowed after all.
Here’s what Spotify told me:
“At this time, health services (including medicines & supplements, pharmacies & pharmaceuticals, healthcare providers, e.g. eye care, hospitals, dentists, contraceptives, abortion and pregnancy counseling) fall under ‘restricted ads’ in our advertising editorial policy, meaning we accept them in a limited capacity with certain limitations and restrictions (e.g. prohibited content and targeting parameters). That said, we regularly assess our ad policies based on the evolving media ecosystem and legal requirements. In this case, our ad reviewer made an error and mischaracterized our policies to Mayday Health. We’ve reached out to them to discuss.”
What’s notable to me here is that the policies cited by Spotify’s ad reviewer regarding abortion products and service aren’t posted online, at least nowhere I’ve found. If that policy exists, and was indeed in place, it suggests that what happened was not an error so much as a quiet change to a policy that was never officially released. I’ve asked Spotify to clarify, and will update this post if I hear back.
Before the 180, Mayday had criticized Spotify in a Twitter thread, creating a 119-hour playlist of musicians accused and convicted of sexual assault in an effort to shame the company into changing its mind.
“States can try to ban abortion. But they cannot ban information, unless powerful actors like Spotify let them,” Olivia Raisner, Mayday cofounder, told me after the campaign was approved. ”We're glad Spotify ultimately agreed to air this ad — which we’re now going to buy nationally. We hope this sends a clear message: You cannot silence speech about abortion pills, which are safe, effective, and FDA-approved through the mail in all 50 states.”
The overturning of Roe has caused significant confusion for platforms attempting to navigate a political and PR minefield.
In June, Google updated its policies to add a label for advertisers who buy abortion-related keywords but don’t actually provide abortion care. But the company has failed to apply the label consistently to crisis pregnancy centers, which counsel people to keep their pregnancies, according to Bloomberg.
Hulu also came under fire for blocking ads related to abortions and guns, under its policy that prohibits ads on “controversial topics of public importance.” After Democrats blasted the company, the company reversed its decision.
The issue is particularly important to Democrats who are pouring millions of dollars in Facebook ads about candidates’ stances on abortion ahead of next month’s US midterm elections. The issue has become a unifying force for the party, which it hopes to use to generate strong turnout at the polls.
The issue hits particular sensitivities at Spotify, which has burnished its credentials as a staunch free-speech advocate this year through standing by its top podcast host, Joe Rogan, through a series of controversies related to racist speech and Rogan’s promotion of vaccine hesitancy.
“If we want even a shot at achieving our bold ambitions, it will mean having content on Spotify that many of us may not be proud to be associated with,” Spotify CEO Daniel Ek told employees in February, according to remarks obtained by The Verge. “Not anything goes, but there will be opinions, ideas, and beliefs that we disagree with strongly and even makes us angry or sad.”
— Zoe Schiffer contributed to this report.
On the podcast this week: Legs are coming to the metaverse, and I institute a quality lockdown that will last through the end of the year. Kevin and I chat with the Times’ Noam Scheiber and Erin Griffith about how platform power is shifting to workers in the gig economy. Finally, we debut the theme music for our ”This Week in AI” segment. (We also debut the segment.)
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