Are Social Media Platforms Censoring Artists' Promotions?

February 9, 2020

If keeping track of what you can and can’t post on social media feels harder than it used to, that’s because it is. In their attempts to address disinformation, harassment and offensive material, platforms have implemented new rules enforced in part by software instead of human moderators. These restrictions can catch artists off guard, and recently forced two companies to dramatically alter their marketing.

Taken Apart

The problem:

Last October, Karole Armitage was promoting a run of her You Took a Part of Me at New York Live Arts by Armitage Gone! Dance. Her social media marketing plan, developed with consultant Jamie Benson to capitalize on existing performance photos, wasn’t going as anticipated. Nearly all 32 versions of the ads had to be heavily edited—some multiple times, after repeated rejections from Facebook and Instagram—and Twitter suspended their permission to advertise. “None of the images we shared included nudity and none of them simulated sex acts,” Benson says. “The costumes were mesh bodysuits with, ironically enough, what look like black censor bars across the chests.”

The response:

Benson and Armitage made lemonade out of the affair by revealing it to their email list. One subject line asked, “Do you think this video is pornographic?” The message included screenshots of rejections from Facebook and Twitter. “It clearly broke through the noise of a competitive season,” says Benson. “Our open rate that week averaged 124 percent higher than usual and our click-through rate averaged 184 percent higher.”

In the end:

“As artists, we have to embrace accidents,” Armitage says, “and contro­versy is always good.” The company sold 716 out of the 720 tickets available.

Scorched EARTH

The problem:

Developed by Eryc Taylor and four other choreographers, plus three composers and filmmaker David Kagan, EARTH was “a visual, physical and auditory wake-up call to the impact of our actions on global warming,” according to a description rejected by Facebook for paid promotion.

“Every time I tried to boost a Facebook post I would get an error,” explains Taylor, “saying that I couldn’t because of the content of the ad. We tried a million different ways to rephrase the mission. The same thing happened on Instagram.” Taylor retained that language in EARTH‘s free event pages on Facebook, but paid posts were reduced to mentioning only EARTH, the premiere date and the name of the venue. “You can debate them, but it goes nowhere,” says Taylor.

The response:

Word of mouth generated through five studio showings alleviated some of the pain. The company spent about $100 to print flyers for dance and fitness studios in the area, and postcards for hand-to-hand distribution. Taylor took advantage of free calendar listings offered by Dance/NYC, and a referral from Pentacle, hired for administrative support, led Brooklyn Botanic Garden to present EARTH.

In the end:

EARTH’s one-night-only premiere last November sold out, thanks primarily to personal endorsements from fans, friends and family. “In terms of getting our message out to the masses, though, we were not as successful as we had hoped,” says Eryc Taylor Dance company manager Nicole Baker.

Sharing Options

Don’t assume there’s no way out when your social strategy gets cornered. Just as Armitage Gone! Dance made Facebook’s restrictions the subject of an email campaign, companies can turn experiences on one platform into conversations on another. LinkedIn and Medium are two appropriate places to publish thoughtful writing—just be sure to do your research and enlist an editor if you can.

Erik Gensler, president of digital marketing consulting firm Capacity Interactive, confirms an uphill battle for many in their social media spending. “In the past few years, we’ve seen an increase in Facebook not approving ad content for political messaging, especially for organizations having events around sensitive subjects, and for images of dancers,” he says. Be aware that any photo of dancers in formfitting, skin-toned costumes risks getting flagged for nudity.

Rather than challenging Facebook, Gensler recommends staying up to date on its policies. “It would be hard for an arts organization to run a successful campaign without social media,” he says. “Be aware of what the limitations are so you can plan around them.”

It may be tempting to pour all your resources into social media—especially given declining press coverage for dance—but any marketing campaign should utilize at least one other channel. Capture as many details as you can about your efforts so that next time you can tweak the recipe. It might make more sense, for example, to trade mailing lists with a similar company and send postcards rather than another email to someone who hasn’t opened the last four you sent.