Who is running Facebook political ads during the pandemic in Canada? [Update: May 2020]

During the COVID-19 pandemic, it is as important as ever to know who is looking to sway our opinions online. As a continuing part of our transparency initiative, we are looking each month at some of the top advertisers on Facebook and the issues on which they hope to influence Canadians’ thoughts and opinions.

The pandemic has commanded Canadian’s attention in recent months, and this has been reflected in the top advertisers on Facebook. In April, we found charities and NGOs topped the list. While this trend continued in the final week of May, others have emerged to draw attention to a range of causes. Using the Social Media Lab’s Polidashboard, which collects data from Facebook’s Ads API, we examined the trends and issues that emerged among Facebook’s top advertisers in May.

In particular, we analysed the top 25 Canadian political ads on Facebook from May 25 to May 31 (based on the total number of active ads during this time period). The majority of the ads (78% of 3,073) were purchased for less than $100. See Table 1 below.

Table 1: Top 25 Canadian political advertisers on Facebook (May 25-31)

Page<$100$100 – $499$500 – $999$1K – $4.9K$5K+Total Ads
1Amnesty International Canada293731470387
2Doctors Without Borders/ Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)231366101284
3Dying With Dignity Canada25110000261
4United Way Greater Toronto23127100259
5Stand.earth23611000247
6SEIU Healthcare20531110238
7Peter MacKay13819551168
8UnSmoke Canada36601090115
9Covenant Foundation8426200112
10Société de recherche sur le cancer / Cancer Research Society1040000104
11No To No Fault87621096
12Toronto General & Western Hospital Foundation661400080
13Greenpeace Canada402464074
14Alberta’s NDP431776073
15Community Building Standard60732072
16Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP)501072069
17Manitoba Nurses Union60510066
18Unpublished Media Inc.341700051
19UNHCR Canada516715548
20National Police Federation241940148
21Calgarians for a Progressive Future301431048
22Ontario Medical Association171866047
23JTI Canada Tech.34903046
24Fair Path Forward171157242
25The Fraser Institute34400038

Top advertising themes

The top political advertisers cross a broad range of issues and interests. However, five key themes emerged after a closer review of the top 25 advertisers from May 25-31. 

1. Advocacy groups

The most common advertisers during this period were advocacy groups; nine advertisers fall into this category. The issues and reasons that underline their work may differ, but the common thread is that they are using their Facebook ads to advocate for something that may not get much public attention during the COVID-19 pandemic. For Dying with Dignity, the group’s ads raise awareness about access to medically assisted death in Canada. The National Police Federation – which tied in 20th with 48 ads, down from eighth in the last week of April when it ran 93 ads – advocates for policing nationally.

Environmental organizations Stand.Earth and Greenpeace use their ads to try to keep environmental issues in the public eye. One Greenpeace ad uses the phrase “governments need to know we’re still paying attention” in a video which stated that a United Nations meeting on a global ocean treaty was postponed due to the pandemic.

Figure 1: Greenpeace Canada Facebook advertisement and engagement statistics
Figure 1: Greenpeace Canada Facebook advertisement and engagement statistics

Some organizations used their ads to target issues at the provincial and local-city level. “No to no fault” used its ads to oppose a move to introduce no fault insurance in the province of British Columbia. “Calgarians for a Progressive Future” advocates for issues in Calgary. One series of ads highlights a looming decision on the fate of an LRT line first approved in 2017, but has faced alterations to its planned route and has faced calls from some to be shelved due to the present economic circumstances. 

Figure 2: Calgarians for a Progressive Future Facebook advertisement and engagement statistics
Figure 2: Calgarians for a Progressive Future Facebook advertisement and engagement statistics

2. Health care

As the pandemic continues, health care and preventing the spread of COVID-19 remains a vital issue for Canadians. Six of the top 25 advertisers are health care-related organizations who are using their ads to seek donations, support health care workers and long-term care.

Long-term care facilities across the country have been hit hard by COVID-19 as 82% of Canadian deaths from the virus were residents in long-term care facilities. They also have come under scrutiny after the Canadian military released a scathing report about conditions in fice Ontario long-term care facilities. 

These issues are highlighted in ads by SEIU Healthcare, a union representing health care workers in a variety of roles. One series of ads supporting long-term care workers was shown entirely in Ontario. Other ads target an operator of long term care facilities in Ontario over a lack of personal protective equipment. 

Figure 3: SEIU Healthcare Facebook advertisement and engagement statistics
Figure 3: SEIU Healthcare Facebook advertisement and engagement statistics

Advertisements ran by the Covenant Foundation, a Catholic charity with 20 long term care facilities in Alberta, sought donations by targeting audiences in communities in the province where its facilities are located. The Covenant Foundation has been an active advertiser on Facebook during the pandemic. It placed ninth in the last week of May with 112 ads, down from third in the last week of April when it had 150 ads.

Other health care advertisers included the Toronto General & Western Hospital Foundation and the Cancer Research Society, which also sought donations with their ads. Some of the research society’s ads include a reminder that cancer “doesn’t take a break” during the pandemic. The Ontario Medical Association, which was also among the top Facebook advertisers in the last week of April, encouraged prevention and safety with some of its ads as the virus continues to spread within the province.

3. Charities & NGOs

Four NGOs and charities ranked among the top Facebook advertisers in the last week of May: Amnesty International, Doctors Without Borders, UNHCR Canada and United Way of Greater Toronto. Their mandates may differ but each is using its ads to highlight how the pandemic has impacted at-risk communities at home and abroad and to raise donations to support their work. Some Amnesty International’s ads remind people to “defend human rights in the time of Covid” while UNHCR Canada ads highlight the impact the pandemic has had on refugees. 

United Way Greater Toronto has been among the top Facebook advertisers during the pandemic’s peak period with 259 ads in the last week of May and 485 in the last week of April. The organization used its in the last week of May for an initiative which matched donations through May 30.

4. Business associations/lobby

Four advertisers are focused on economic and business issues. As the pandemic continues, advertisements by UnSmoke Canada and JTI Canada Tech look to ease advertising regulations for vaping. 

UnSmoke Canada is a website run by Rothmans, Bensons and Hedges, Inc. It encourages people to quit smoking or to move to alternatives to cigarettes. UnSmoke also seeks to ease advertising regulations for vaping products. UnSmoke Canada was the eighth highest advertiser in the last week of May, but it was one of the top spenders in actual dollar amounts having spent more than $13,000 between May 25-31. JTI Canada Tech’s advertisements, which are no longer active on Facebook, encourage people to contact MPs to ease advertising regulations for vaping. 

Figure 4: UnSmoke Canada Facebook advertisement and engagement statistics
Figure 4: UnSmoke Canada Facebook advertisement and engagement statistics

Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers has used its Facebook advertisements to support the Canadian oil and gas industry and highlight its industry’s importance during the pandemic. It has maintained its advertising presence on Facebook in recent months with 69 ads in the last weeks of both April and May. One advertisement from the age Canada’s Energy Citizens paid for by the association, highlights the economic impact of the oil and gas industry across the country.

Figure 5: Facebook advertisement paid for by the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers and its engagement statistics
Figure 5: Facebook advertisement paid for by the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers and its engagement statistics

5. Politics & politicians

Political parties and politicians have been largely inactive advertisers on Facebook since the pandemic emerged, but one politician stepped back into the arena in the last week of May. 

The Conservative Party of Canada postponed its leadership race in March, but candidate Peter MacKay spent more than $12,000 on 168 ads on May 25-31. MacKay is one of the few advertisers willing to pay $5,000+ for an advertisement in this period. Several ads link to surveys, while others address policy issues. One ad questions COVID-19’s origin and China’s actions in the pandemic’s early period. 

Figure 6:  Peter MacKay Facebook advertisement and engagement statistics
Figure 6:  Peter MacKay Facebook advertisement and engagement statistics

Alberta’s NDP party – which ran 73 ads May 25-31, up from 69 in the last week of April – had the most ads among Canadian political parties. The party used its ads to target provincial budget cuts and health care and education spending in the province. 


And the beat goes on…

The top advertising themes in April were health care and calls for donations by charities and NGOs to support their efforts in the fight against the pandemic. Partisan, narrowly focused ads were present, but the fight against COVID-19 was a major theme. NGOs and charities were still among the top 25 advertisers in May. With the exception of Alberta’s NDP, political parties largely held off on making big steps back into political advertising on Facebook in May. However, as we found new advertisers emerged with issues that are not related to the pandemic, while other advertisers are transitioning back to standard messaging.

The pandemic remains one of the most important global issues and the emergence of partisan advocacy groups and business lobby organizations among top Facebook advertisers means organizations that are fighting COVID-19 have more competition for public attention. 

Post by: Donald Patterson, Anatoliy Gruzd, & Philip Mai