Who is running Facebook ads during the pandemic?

The COVID-19 pandemic is naturally top of mind for people right now. Many people around the world are turning to the internet and social media to connect to friends and family or to simply pass the time. As a result, in recent months, usage has spiked across most popular social media platforms. This mass congregation of users represents one of the largest audience pool for advertisers right now. With all of this in mind, we were curious as to who is currently running ads on one of the most popular social media platforms in Canada during the pandemic?

Using the Social Media Lab’s Polidashboard portal, which was launched as part of the Lab’s Election 43 (#ELXN43) Transparency Initiative, we have been tracking spending on political and social issue advertisements on Facebook since the Federal election last fall.

The dashboard uses data from Facebook’s Ads Library API, a searchable database of all advertisements currently running on Facebook, which was enabled in Canada in response to Bill C-76. The Lab’s Facebook Ads dashboard currently tracks active advertisers on a daily basis and provides summary statistics in a number of different ways, including:

  • A list of the Most Active Political Advertisers in Canada, ranked by the total number of ads they are running, broken down into various price ranges.
  • A list of the Top 10 Most Active Facebook Pages running political ads in Canada, how much money they have spent and the number of impressions their ads have garnered.

This data can be used to identify important trends in how political parties or third-party organizations spend ad dollars on Facebook.

Top 10 Advertisers during the Pandemic

Here are top 10 political and social issues advertisers on Facebook at the end of April (from April 24-30). The majority of the advertisers in April pivoted from their core mandate and focused specifically on combating the pandemic and helping those who have been affected, however, a few stuck to their pre-pandemic mandate and forged ahead with their standard and narrowly-focused issue ads.

Charities and NGOs were among the most active Canadian political/social issues advertisers on Facebook at the end of April. The charities and NGOs used microtargeting to target key demographic groups and spent the bulk of their advertising budget on ads costing less than $100 each, though some were willing to pay higher dollar amounts in excess of $500.

Top 10 Most Active Facebook Political & Social Issue Advertisers (April 24-30)
RankFacebook Page$0 – $99$100 – $499$500 – $999$1,000 – $4,999>= $5,000Total ads
1United Way Greater Toronto45925100485
3Covenant Foundation12920100150
4Ottawa Food bank9726510129
5Amnesty International Canada6828840108
6Ontario Medical Association453311140103
7UNHCR Canada29291023596
8National Police Federation741350193
9CAMH Foundation561900075
10Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers511062069
10Alberta’s NDP461643069

Top 6 Advertisement Themes

An examination of advertisements placed by the top 10 advertisers in April reveals six themes and issues that dominated many of the ads Canadians saw in their news feed at the end of April.

1) Donations

Charitable organizations are using Facebook ads to collect donations to help people who are economically affected by the pandemic and who live in at-risk communities at home and abroad. Half of the top 10 advertisers are charities or NGOs. The impact of COVID-19 has been felt around the world, and communities across the globe face additional challenges compared to those in Canada and other developed nations. Amnesty International and UNHRC Canada used their ads to highlight the impact the pandemic has had on high-risk groups, such as refugees, and on human rights abuses in this period. The UNHCR was one of the few to pay higher prices for its advertisements, buying five ads for more than $5,000 each and 23 for more than $1,000.

Other charities, by contrast, are focused on efforts at the local level. The top advertiser was the United Way of Greater Toronto. It bought 485 ads, including 459 ads costing less than $100. The Ottawa Food Banks and Covenant Foundation took a similar approach with their Facebook ads. All three groups – United Way, Ottawa Food Bank and Covenant House – used their ads to raise donations to help people who have been affected by the economic impacts of the pandemic as businesses closed and people found themselves out of work.

Figure 1: United Way Greater Toronto Facebook advertisement and engagement stats

2) Health care

The pandemic has stretched Canada’s health system to its limits and some organizations are using Facebook ads to support health care workers and raise awareness of health issues during the pandemic. The association used its ads to promote its ‘Shine a light’ campaign; one advertisement is seen in Figure 2 below. The campaign encouraged people to shine a light from their homes in evening hours between May 1-9 to show appreciation for doctors in Ontario. The campaign was launched as Ontario was hit particularly hard by the pandemic. By the end of April, the province had recorded more than 16,600 cases and 1,100 deaths. 

Figure 2: Ontario Medical Association Facebook advertisement and engagement stats

3) Policing

The National Police Federation purchased ads supporting the RCMP through April for two different Facebook Pages: The National Police Federation and Surrey’s Say on Policing. On April 27, ads were purchased by the Surrey policing page in support of retaining the RCMP for local policing. The city is in the process of transitioning from the RCMP to a local police service. Though the majority of its ads cost less than $100, it was one of two advertisers in the top 10 willing to pay more than $5,000 for an ad.

4) Environment

Climate change remains a critical issue during the pandemic and the number two advertiser, environmental activist organization Stand.Earth, used its ads to highlight oil and gas development, deforestation and environmental impacts of the global cruise industry. In its ads, the group establishes connections between the latter two issues and the COVID-19 outbreak.

Two versions of one ad take inspiration from high sales of toilet paper as people stocked up on supplies before isolating at home. One, seen in Figure 3, predicts a rise of logging to feed an upswing of toilet paper production.

Figure 3: Stand.Earth Facebook advertisement and engagement stats

5) Oil & Gas

In addition to the examples mentioned above, Stand.Earth also purchased a series of advertisements in April targeting oil and gas production in Canada over its impact on climate change. One ad criticizes Alberta Premier Jason Kenny over his calls for federal government bailouts for oil and gas firms. The industry has been impacted by the dual crises of a price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia and decreased demand due to the COVID-19 pandemic and economic shutdown.

In contrast, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) has used its Facebook advertisements to support the Canadian oil and gas industry and highlight its industry’s importance during the pandemic. One ad was paid for by the CAPP, but is credited to the page Canada’s Energy Citizens. It appears the ad was largely targeted to women between the ages of 18 and 34 in Ontario, Quebec and B.C.

Figure 4: Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers Facebook advertisement and engagement stats

6) Political Parties

The Alberta NDP is one of the few Canadian political parties running Facebook ads in April. The party used its ads to target provincial budget cuts and health care spending in Alberta, as well as plans to close or reduce services at 20 provincial parks. Alberta’s NDP stands in contrast to other parties who stopped advertising or spent little on Facebook during the peak of the pandemic.

And the Beats Continues On

The COVID-19 pandemic has not stopped organizations from trying to get their messages out via social media platforms such as Facebook. The top 10 advertisers on Facebook in April are well-known charities, industry groups and associations. But they are far from the only advertisers on Facebook. In a once-in-a-century crisis like the pandemic, it is more critical than ever to make sure that those who are looking to influence public opinion do so in a transparent manner.

Post by: Donald Patterson with contributions from Philip Mai, Anatoliy Gruzd and Nikolai Krause