A group of teenagers stood in the subway station beneath Grand Central Terminal, giggling and taking selfies in front of a poster of a man’s crotch, an advertisement for Roman, a company that supplies medication to treat erectile dysfunction.
Edgy advertising can be seen all over the city, and the subway is no exception, but this month, a company that sells sexual aids targeted at women found its campaign initially rejected by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority on grounds that the colorful, stylized paintings of dildos and vibrators in its ads violated subway advertising rules against obscenity.
But after an outcry from the company, Unbound, which accused the M.T.A. of a gendered double standard, was quickly seized on by several publications and on social media, the M.T.A. found itself once again mired in an issue that has plagued the agency — determining what is appropriate to promote on its buses, stations and trains.
On Thursday, the agency reversed course, saying it would work with the sex toy company to find a way to permit it to advertise without violating the M.T.A.’s rules.
“The M.T.A. has always and will continue to ensure that our policies are applied evenly and fairly,” Jon Weinstein, a spokesman for the agency, wrote in an email, pledging that they would “work with the company toward a resolution that is agreeable to all parties and allows their ads on the system.”
Polly Rodriguez, a co-founder and chief executive officer of Unbound, said she was looking forward to hearing what that might mean for the ad campaign, though she was still not completely satisfied. “It feels a lot like they are willing to work with us because we shed light on this,” she said of the M.T.A. But what she truly wanted, she said, was a change to the policies, “so they don’t continue to champion erectile dysfunction and discriminate against products that cater to different genders and sexualities.”
The M.T.A. faced similar criticism when THINX, a company that makes underwear to wear during menstruation, sought to buy space in 2015 for ads featuring dripping egg yolks and split fruit. Outfront Media, a company that reviews advertisements for the agency, raised red flags during the evaluation process, but after THINX complained the ads were ultimately approved.
But the issue of provocative ads is not limited to sexuality: After the M.T.A. rejected inflammatory ads that denigrated Islam by a group called the American Freedom Law Center, the organization sued the agency on First Amendment grounds. A lower court ruled that the agency was not legally obligated to run the ads, and an appeals court ruled against the group on a technicality.
Ms. Rodriguez said she saw a double standard in her company’s initial rejection and in ads the M.T.A. permits: ample images on advertisements for breast augmentation, the provocative posters for the Museum of Sex, as well as the Roman campaign.
“We can use sex on any other advertising platform and use the female body to sell things,” Ms. Rodriguez said. “But the minute women want to empower others to use their sexuality for themselves, that’s threatening?”
Anticipating it might run afoul of M.T.A. advertising rules forbidding ads that may constitute the “dissemination of indecent material to minors” or a “public display of offensive sexual material,” Unbound had commissioned six artists to create tableau-like scenes of “self love,” rather than highlight its products.
Kristen Wong, a 26-year-old graphic artist and painter from Los Angeles, depicted a woman surrounded by the comforts of home, the occasional sex-toy hidden among the array. “It’s like a ‘Where’s Waldo,’” Ms. Wong said. “I was very conscious of trying not to be too risqué.” The M.T.A. said it was the explicit images of the sex toys that were particularly problematic.
Zachariah Reitano, a co-founder and chief executive officer of Roman, expressed his support for Unbound in a statement. “Viagra has been advertised for 20 years; men’s health companies don’t have to face the same types of challenges that women’s health companies do,” Mr. Reitano wrote.
Roman itself has faced issues in its effort to destigmatize erectile dysfunction, including being blocked by several podcasts from advertising. “As far as we’ve come,’’ Mr. Reitano said, “there are still deep-rooted stigmas attached to certain aspects of health that prevent important and groundbreaking companies from telling their story.”
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