Coming to a Facebook Timeline Near You: Who has spent the most on political ads in Canada? #elxn43

Social media advertising gives candidates, political parties and interest groups the ability to appeal to narrowly defined groups within the broader community. This ability to target groups of potential voters directly, a practice commonly referred to as microtargeting, has dramatically changed how political campaigns are run.

As we have noted before, microtargeting is a marketing strategy that relies on users’ demographic and social media data — the things we like on social media, who we are friends with, businesses that we have frequented, etc. — to identify and segment people into smaller groups and is often used to influence people’s choices and actions. 

The ability to target voters with personalized messaging is not new. However, until the passage of Bill C-76 in 2018, there was little transparency around online political ads spending in Canada. Among other things, Bill C-76 requires online platforms to maintain a registry of all online political ads purchased during the pre-writ and writ periods. To comply with the requirements of this bill, social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook have both rolled out searchable online ads registries. (Citing challenges, Google has chosen to ban all Canadian political ads from its platform during this federal election cycle.)

Using the Social Media Lab’s Polidashboard, launched as part of the Lab’s Election 43 (#ELXN43) Transparency Initiative, we have been tracking spending on political advertisements on Facebook since the election writ dropped. Using data from Facebook’s Ads API, the dashboard gives voters the ability to see how and how much political parties, candidates, and third parties are spending on political advertisements on Facebook in Canada. This post summarizes some of our preliminary analysis.

Advertising by Political Party

As shown in the table below, the Liberal and Conservative Parties far eclipsed the more limited spending by the NDP, the Green Party, the Bloc Quebecois and People’s Party of Canada.

Table 1.  Number of Political Ads by Price Range (September 12 – October 9, 2019)

Amount spent per ad >Less than $100 $100-499$500-999 $1000-5000More than $5000Total
Liberal Party of Canada | Parti libéral du Canada 4430 541 70 55 115107
Conservative Party of Canada – Parti conservateur du Canada 537 323 90 70 101030
Canada’s NDP / Le NPD du Canada 34 43 16 24 2119
Green Party of Canada 39 1 3 7 050
People’s Party of Canada 51 13 4 1 069
l’agent principal du Bloc Québécois2 6 4 4016

Note: The totals for political parties do not include the amounts spent on ads by individual candidates or provincial branches of some parties. This information is listed in the database, but is not combined with spending totals made by the parties in this table. If it were, it is likely the total spending amounts could be higher yet.

The Liberal Party has been the most active political advertiser on Facebook in the months leading up to the election campaign. Since Facebook started publicly reporting ads spending in June 2019, the party spent over $500,000 across all Facebook pages owned by the party.

About the Liberal Party of Canada Facebook Page

The Facebook data reveals several approaches of how the Liberal party uses the platform for advertising. Firstly, the Liberals appears to be strategically spending heavily on smaller dollar-value ads – as a share of their total Facebook ads spending. For example, during the four weeks period from September 12 – October 9, the Liberals have bought over 5,107 ads on Facebook, but 4,430 of the ads were in the less than $100 price range.

This finding is indicative of how adept the Liberal Party of Canada is at creating a rich and deep library of ads that can cater to the various segments of users on Facebook. This also suggests that the Liberals are more proficient, as compared to the other major parties in Canada, at using microtargeting on Facebook to reach potential voters.

When reviewing the target audience statistics provided by Facebook Ads Library, the Liberals often target specific areas or demographics with their ads. Many of the Liberal Party’s ads target vote-rich Ontario, which has 121 of the 338 seats in the House of Commons. One set of Liberal ads calling to “stop Conservative cuts” features Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Conservative leader Andrew Scheer. They are predominantly seen in Ontario, and more frequently by women over 45. In another example, an advertisement calling for climate action and preventing a return to Conservative policies was directed to female voters over the age of 45, and more than half of those who saw the ad were in Ontario, as shown in the figure below.

A Sample Facebook Ad by the Liberal Party of Canada

The Conservative Party has been ramping up its spending on advertising on Facebook. While the Party has spent over $600k since June 2019 across all pages owned by the party (including page for the Conservative party leader Andrew Scheer), about one-third of that money was just deployed recently on Facebook in the past week (October 2-8).

About the Conservative Party of Canada Facebook Page

The Conservatives are taking a somewhat different approach compared to the Liberals. For one thing, the Conservative party is spending more money on Facebook than the Liberals but are buying fewer number of ads. For example, during the four-week period from September 12 – October 9, the Conservative bought only 1030 ads, comparing to the Liberals’ 5107 ads.

The Conservatives also appear to be taking a multi-pronged approach to advertising on Facebook. First, while Trudeau is at the centre of many of the Liberal’s ads on Facebook, Conservative leader Andrew Scheer takes a less prominent position in his party’s ads. The Liberal Party runs ads on two Facebook pages and approximately three-quarters of the party’s ads come from Trudeau’s page. The Conservatives, on the other hand, runs their ads on eight pages (since August 28), including one for the party, one for Scheer, a Chinese language page, an ‘Election Fact Check page’ and four candidate pages, as shown below. 

Facebook Pages Running Ads by the Conservative Party of Canada

Secondly, based on a manual review of some of the ads ran by the Conservatives, the party regularly runs different versions of the same ad, often using one of two pictures. The issue could be health care, or a simple generic slogan about getting ahead. One version often includes a photo of a young couple and is generally shown to a younger demographic on Facebook. A second features a photo of an older couple and is shown to an older audience. This strategy is not unique to the Conservatives, but it is a method for parties to target specific groups they believe can be encouraged to vote a particular way.

All parties have used their ads to target their opponents to some degree. Conservative ads criticizing Trudeau often using the phrase “Not as advertised”. Not surprisingly, the party has taken advantage of Trudeau’s Brownface scandal, involving a photo of the Liberal leader in brownface taken while he was a teacher in Vancouver in 2001. As shown below, one Conservative ad with the photo was targeted entirely to voters in Ontario.

A Sample Ad by the Conservative Party of Canada

The NDP, by comparison, has spent much less money advertising on Facebook. Since June, the party has spent just under $200k on 153 ads. Of this amount, nearly $50k was spent between October 2-8. While 103 ads were run via the NDP’s main Facebook page, only 6 were linked directly to leader Jagmeet Singh’s page. Overall, the NDP has not focused its spending as heavily on smaller dollar-value ads – as a share of total spending – as the Conservatives and Liberals. Singh is often featured in the NDP’s ads and the party has largely targeted them towards Facebook users in Ontario, followed by British Columbia and Quebec.

Notably, third party advertising helped boost the NDP’s presence on Facebook. For instance, the United Steel Workers, which owns the Facebook page called “Jagmeet Singh: On Your Side”, has spent around $30k on Facebook ads since June.

A Sample Ad by the United Steel Workers

The Green Party only recently began buying ads on Facebook. Since June, the party has spent about $18k on 57 ads. The Green Party uses similar tactics targeting ads to specific audiences on Facebook. The party’s ads are generally shown in Ontario, British Columbia and Prince Edward Island, where the Greens have made strides at the provincial level. In one example, an ad targeting construction of the Trans Mountain Pipeline was only shown in British Columbia, with more than half of the ads audience being women over the age of 35. Green Party candidates have been active Facebook advertisers, separate from the party, but they too are spending limited amounts, often a few hundred dollars.

The Bloc Quebecois has only spent around $17k for 17 ads on Facebook thus far, with $5k spent between October 2-8. The Bloc focused its spending in the $100-500 range, buying 7 ads. Unsurprisingly, the Bloc’s ads are only directed at audiences in Quebec and generally attracted a male audience. The party’s ads seek donations and highlight its policies to protect the French language, the environment and supply management systems in agriculture. Like the Greens, some Bloc’s candidates have been purchasing their own Facebook ads but they spent limited amounts.

The People’s Party of Canada has spent just under $16k thus far. Notably, nearly one-quarter was spent recently between October 2-8. The People’s Party has focused its advertising on low-cost ads, buying 51 for less than $100 since August 28. The party’s ads were, generally, shown to a male audience. Its advertisements highlight party leader Maxime Bernier and its policy proposals to end multiculturalism and supply management, to support veterans, “Rejecting alarmism” on global warming and, recently, freedom of expression.

Third Party Advertising

As Facebook has become an important advertising platform for political parties, so too has it become a tool for a wide range of third party political advertisers. The amount spent and number of ads run varies widely, from a few hundred dollars to more than $100k. Conservative advocacy group Canada Proud has spent just over $200k on political ads since June, comparing to a progressive advocacy group called North99 that has spent around $21k. Interestingly, while many of its ads target conservative politicians and conservative issue, it has also used its Facebook ads to target Canada Proud.

As there are still ten more days to go in this election period, the outcome of this election is still uncertain, but one thing is clear – for those with deep pockets, advertising on platforms like Facebook has changed how political campaigns are fought. To ensure that election campaigns are run on social media are more transparent, we will continue to examine how the parties are making use of online advertising.

NOTE: Polidashboard is publicly accessible and can be used by anyone to be informed about political advertisers in Canada and the ads they are running on Facebook. 

By Donald Patterson, Philip Mai and Anatoliy Gruzd