These Subway Ads Were Rejected by the MTA for Being Too Sexual

So female-focused Unbound is going guerrilla with its marketing

These ads were deemed too sexual to run in New York City subways. Unbound
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Unbound, a female-focused sexual wellness company that sells sex toys, among other products, had its first subway campaign rejected by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), which operates the New York City subway system, and Outfront Media for allegedly being too sexual.

The MTA cited the following clauses when speaking with Unbound about its proposed subway ads:

8. Contains material, which, if sold or loaned to a minor for monetary consideration with knowledge of its character and content, would give rise to a violation of New York Penal Law § 235.21, which prohibits the dissemination of indecent material to minors, as such provision may be amended, modified, or supplemented from time to time.
9. Contains material, which, if displayed with knowledge of its character and content, would give rise to a violation of New York Penal Law § 245.11, which prohibits the public display of offensive sexual material, as such provision may be amended, modified, or supplemented from time to time.

According to a statement from the MTA, the ads “violate the advertising policy set by the MTA Board.”

UPDATE: MTA spokesman Jon Weinstein told The New York Times that the MTA plans to, “work with the company toward a resolution that is agreeable to all parties and allows their ads on the system.” While it’s not an immediate green light for the brand to put up its ads on New York subways, Unbound CEO Polly Rodriguez sees it as a step in the right direction.

“We’re looking forward to learning what this means for this campaign, and we haven’t yet heard what the terms of this will be. We want to make certain we’re not just putting a band-aid on this issue, but really making an effort to change the policies that resulted in this dispute in the first place. Ultimately, we’d love to be able to make a lasting impact on the policies that have, and obviously continue to, discriminate against companies that cater to different genders and versions of sexuality,” Rodriguez told Adweek via email.

Polly Rodriguez, Unbound’s CEO and co-founder, noted that before the brand even set out to create the ads (displayed below), her team reached out to the MTA about six months ago to get a sense of what the guidelines were for a brand like Unbound that wanted to advertise on the subway.

“The MTA said, ‘Categorically, we don’t think your company would be allowed to run subway ads,’ so we started to think about what’s a campaign we could do that would not highlight the company and what we do but would actually highlight other women and allow them to tell the stories for us,” Rodriguez said.

Unbound worked with five artists, including Laura Callaghan, Loveis Wise and Kristen Liu Wong, to create a series of ads that fit with the brand’s ultimate goals but did so in a tasteful and not overtly sexual way. Regardless, the MTA and Outfront Media, which is behind all advertising for the MTA, still rejected the ads. Since the decision, Unbound has tried to work with both parties to find out what the next steps would be if it wanted to appeal the decision or tweak the advertisements, but it has gotten little to no response.

Outfront Media did not immediately respond to Adweek’s request for comment.

Period underwear brand Thinx had a similar issue with its subway ads when Outfront Media took issue with the word “period” being used in the out-of-home ads. Eventually, Thinx was able to get the ads up and running.

But Unbound isn’t having as easy a time. “There’s nobody who is taking accountability for who is deciding what the rules are and aren’t,” Rodriguez said. “There is no real appeals process.”

One of Unbound’s biggest issues with the response from the MTA and Outfront Media centers around a series of ads currently running on subways for erectile dysfunction company Roman. Roman also includes a URL in its ads and was still approved.

“My hypotheses is because we had our URL in it, that’s what ultimately did it,” Rodriguez said. “It’s because of our company and what we sell. The thing that was so frustrating is simultaneously, Roman has its URL pretty big in all its ads. It was confusing and frustrating because if the issue is driving to a website that is sexual in nature, I think it’s pretty hard to say erectile dysfunction isn’t sexual in nature.”

However, the ruling doesn’t necessarily mean the end of the line for the ads. Rodriguez noted that since news rolled in that the ads would not appear in subway stations, the local NYC community has stepped up to help, offering to run the artwork on their store walls. Street artists and graffiti artists said they would take the art and put it up across the city, too.

@ktjrichards Katie Richards is a staff writer for Adweek.