Google, Amazon and Social Media Sites Ban Face Mask Ads, Making PPE Sales Difficult
Online platforms like Facebook, Google and Amazon have made it nearly impossible (or actually impossible) to sell or advertise face masks, creating problems for suppliers, distributors and even some end-buyers.
Since the onset of the pandemic last March, medical grade face masks have been in short supply, creating major problems for health care workers. Some health care workers were forced to pay for products out of pocket on sites like eBay, where N95 masks were selling for hugely marked up prices.
While infection rates are much lower now than a few months ago and vaccine distribution is ongoing, new strains of the virus are circulating and the decline in infections has plateaued. People are still in the market for more effective face masks, especially as public health officials stress the need for more layers of protection.
But with these online platforms banning or limiting the sale of medical-grade masks, companies selling them are having trouble getting their wares out the door if hospitals aren’t specifically asking them for products.
“It’s disheartening because we are playing by the rules and we can’t catch a break,” Dan Castle, owner of CastleGrade, which makes reusable, high-filtration masks, told the New York Times, “But it’s especially upsetting because, in this case, lives are at stake.”
Facebook reportedly said that its decision was based on federal health authorities underscoring the importance of reserving medical-grade masks for health workers, as well as an effort to limit counterfeit masks on its platforms. And there were plenty of opportunists looking to prey on health care industry clients with promises of millions of masks and failing to deliver the product once the money came in.
The issue of counterfeits, or at least mislabeling products as medical grade, could become lessened if large numbers of manufacturers adopt ASTM’s new face mask certification standard, which makes a product’s effectiveness plainly visible to potential consumers. However, that standard applies only to non-medical masks, and it's fairly easy for counterfeiters to fake documentation anyway.
Not being able to advertise, sell or even buy on social media platforms has hamstrung some promotional products distributors and suppliers since the beginning of the pandemic. This time last year, hand sanitizer was the most sought-after product in the market, when “wash your hands and don’t touch your face” was the extent of public health guidance on the coronavirus.
“[Social media platforms] basically flagged almost anything that had the words ‘sanitizer,’ ‘face mask,’ you know, in its wording, title or anything else,” Benny Greenberg, of distributor BKG Media and Promotions, said. “The biggest issue early on for that was that there were a lot of people who had the product, like myself, and there were people who needed the product. But it got crazy because it was impossible to say, ‘Hey, we just received a million masks. Give me a call.’ You had to figure out other ways to do it.”
Despite e-commerce sales, especially for masks, being a lifeline for many a supplier and distributor during the last year, the traditional supplier-distributor model of the promotional products industry created a workaround when direct-to-consumer ads were being taken down.
“Really, masks in general are restricted from most online marketing methods, so selling within the industry has been a great alternative to allow distributors to get the products they need for their customers easily,” said Steve Davis, CEO of Intelligent Life Inc. “Even Alibaba doesn’t allow anyone but a manufacturer to advertise anything PPE-related.”
On the distributor side, reaching those health care clients came down to taking the initiative to get in contact with them, rather than relying on any advertising that was taken down almost immediately.
“We sold a ton to our local hospital, but only because we made the phone call,” Greenberg said. “If they were going to look for it on Facebook, they weren’t going to find it, because it kept disappearing.”
With all of the scamming, counterfeiting and uncertainty, it's understandable that online platforms like Facebook and Amazon have what are essentially all-or-nothing policies, leaving nothing up to chance. It's an inconvenience for distributors and suppliers who have been unable to generate sales through social media, one of the cornerstones of modern business, but it's not an impossible roadblock.
As Greenberg and Davis said, relying instead on existing connections and being proactive can be the window of opportunity when the internet closes a door. While PPE sales, especially on the medical side, are certainly slowing for distributors, consumer masks will likely play some role well into 2021, if not longer.