Sexual wellness brand Lovehoney has been embroiled in a long-running dispute with Google and Instagram over strict search and advertising policies that hamper its marketing efforts and hide its website. Lovehoney’s sexual empowerment manager Johanna Rief tells The Drum how he is fighting back.
In 2021, Google made changes to its SafeSearch feature, which the company says “helps filter out explicit content in search results.”
Because of this “explicit” restriction, Lovehoney estimates it has now lost nearly a million customers. “It’s just another example of big tech treating sexuality as something sinful,” Rief says, “while allowing other harmful content to slip through the net.”
Announcement from Lovehoney telling users how to disable Google SafeSearch / Lovehoney
In June this year, the brand decided to implement its struggle in its marketing message by creating a not-so-subtle billboard that called out the tech giant. “Ogle” saw the recognizable Google search engine primary colors next to the copy: “Turn SafeSearch off to preview our full range.”
To date, there has been no response from the tech giant. “They don’t want to be mentioned in an article or be in the same room as sexual wellness brands,” Rief adds.
“We filed 600 complaints. We’re in touch with the Google Ads team, which is really nice, but the policy team doesn’t really want to talk to us.”
Google being one of the major search engines, Lovehoney has to make the arrangement work. He can’t boycott Google, but he has to generate new sources of traffic. “It was a bit of an eye opener for us. There are other search engines, right? They’re not as big as Google, but still relevant.”
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Google is more than happy to accept ad spend from Lovehoney, but is limited to retargeting ads. That, at least, Rief understands. Who wants sex toy ads popping up on their work laptop on a Monday morning?
“We pay the same amount for Google ads, but we get less traffic,” she notes. “We were really sticking to the guidelines they gave us for ads, we said, ‘just tell us what we should be doing, what keywords we can bid on to make sure we’re aligned with the guidelines.’ We only want people on the homepage who are looking for these types of products. We don’t bid on random keywords like toys.”
Generally, Google’s feedback indicates that the restrictions are in place to “protect children,” she says. But Rief is quick to point out that “as soon as a child knows what sex toys are, he should get sex education.”
Either way, for now, third-party sellers offer a lifeline, with products offered at Amazon, Superdrug and Argos among other retailers. “Marketplaces are important, but even Amazon is a bit strict about listing sex toys and where they’re displayed,” she says.
“We’ve had our fair share of conversations with Amazon. It’s not super open-minded when it comes to sex toys, but it still sells quite well. And then there is the affiliate program where they make a lot of money selling sex toys. But then again, it’s not Amazon’s favorite topic of conversation.
But even social media has its problems. Lovehoney is silenced due to the Terms of Service. “Social media ads are not possible for us,” adds Rief. “Our followers and community grow organically, which takes a lot of time and effort. We’ve had times where [Instagram and Facebook] blocked our brands – they didn’t remove the channel, but they banned it for a while until we started talking about it.
Along with allegations of being “shadowbanned,” Rief says Lovehoney has been accused of violating guidelines with its ads. She feels that the rules are so broad and that there are “definitely different standards for different subjects”.
“It seems that female sexuality in our society has always been oppressed or used to control women. You are not allowed to have the same libido. You are not allowed to have the same number of sex partners. It has always been used to keep women a little smaller. It seems like these big corporations still have this outdated image in mind when it comes to female sexuality.
So when asked what’s next in the battle for an internet-visible sex toy store, Rief and co will continue to draw attention to the topic, creating stronger buzz. “Maybe a protest outside the Google offices? Rief teases.
“I think a lot of people who work at Google have a much more open mindset than those [making the decisions].”