Facebook has refused to reverse its decision to ban an advert from Meningitis Now, despite protests from the charity that the ban was preventing the dissemination of potentially lifesaving information.
But an unexpected consequence of the decision is that the advert, which depicts a meningitis rash being tested with a glass, has reached more than 200,000 people online, according to the charity.
This was more than 10 times the number that would normally be expected to view such an ad, it said. It had also been viewed by 9 million people via traditional media.
The social networking site banned the advert from appearing in paid-for space on Facebook earlier this month on the grounds, according to the charity at the time, that it was unsuitable because it focused "on an ideal body image".
Facebook has since said that the ad was banned not because of body image but because it used imagery designed to shock or evoke a negative response from viewers, which was prohibited under Facebook’s advertising guidelines.
A second Meningitis Now advert that was initally banned for being "scary, gory or sensational" was later reinstated: it showed a child lying on a hospital bed.
After Meningitis Now complained about the first advert being banned, Facebook said it would investigate the decision; but after a phone conversation last Thursday evening, US-based Facebook executives confirmed they would not be changing their minds, the charity said.
The advert is part of the charity’s Don’t Wait For a Rash campaign, which aims to raise awareness of the fact that the distinctive rash associated with meningitis is often one of the last symptoms to present itself.
Mark Hunt, director of communications at the charity, who took part in the call with Facebook, told Third Sector that Facebook had contacted Meningitis Now after seeing media reports about the advert being bannned.
The story was covered in national media, including the BBC, The Times and the Guardian. Hunt said the charity had approached the press because it had been through a formal complaints process with Facebook before and it had taken a long time.
"We had a conversation with them to try to understand the policy that Facebook have and how it impacts on this particular creative," said Hunt. He said the company restated that the ad could be seen as too shocking and would be likely to scare users.
But Hunt said there was little evidence to suggest that might be the case and that a newspaper poll had indicated that readers found the ad neither shocking nor scary but rather "informative and useful".
He said Facebook executives had not mentioned body image in the phone conversation. He added they had suggested the charity take a different approach to the ads it produces in future, but he declined to say what these suggestions entailed.
Hunt said he expected it would be difficult for charities to place graphic images on Facebook without fully knowing the site’s policy. "I think most charities are going to have to try and place ads which they think are important and then measure the response from Facebook," he said. "It is right and proper that charities challenge the boundaries set by publishers in terms of content."
He added: "The resulting media storm that followed our challenge significantly outweighed the level of reach we would have expected for the ad and enabled us to deliver additional meningitis information to a much wider group."
Meningitis Now is the second charity to have had a Facebook advert banned in recent months. In September, an ad created by the sight-loss charity the RNIB was rejected for being too negative, but the decision was reversed the following month, when Facebook admitted it had made a mistake.
A Facebook spokesman said it did not comment on individual cases or private meetings.