The Facebook campaign trail: How each major party is vying for votes on the social network
OTTAWA -- As party leaders campaign across the country, vying for the support of Canadians ahead of the final vote on October 21, a mirror campaign is playing out on Canada’s largest social media network: Facebook.
Canada’s major federal parties have pushed out over 1,000 political advertisements on Facebook since the start of the official campaign season, accessible for the first time in a federal election through Facebook’s Ad Library.
Our analysis of the political Facebook ads, accounting for target audiences, areas and dominant messaging, showcases how the parties are using distinct strategies to sway the minds of people using the social media platform.
“This is the first election you're seeing major integrated digital campaigns,” Dennis Matthews, vice-president at Enterprise Canada and a conservative strategist with experience in digital campaigning, told CTV News from Toronto. “We’re no longer in the world of a handful of TV spots.”
Since the start of the election campaign, the Conservatives, Liberals and NDP have poured tens of thousands of dollars into advertising on Facebook.
The Conservatives lead the pack, spending nearly $260,000 since September 11, according to data available on Facebook’s Ad Library. In contrast, the Liberals and NDP have spent about $141,000 and $107,000, respectively, in the first half of the campaign.
But cash spent doesn’t necessarily reflect the number of ads pushed out.
Where the Conservatives released a little over 450 unique ads on Facebook, the Liberals pushed out 600, with the NDP a distant third at just over 100 ads between Sept. 11 and Sept. 29, roughly half of the campaign period.
Despite the discrepancy in spending and number of ads, Matthews says the two parties leading the polls, the Conservatives and Liberals, are relatively evenly matched in terms of the content they’re putting out for Facebook users to see.
“Conservatives are focused on policy promises related to affordability in contrast to the Liberals,” he said, “They’re focused on Trudeau’s brand in their online strategy.”
In our analysis, over half of all of the Conservative Facebook ads surveyed focus on saving voter’s money, the dominant theme of the party’s ad campaigns. Only 14 per cent of Liberal ads featured an affordability-focused theme.
Despite the different messaging focuses, the two parties are vying for voters in many of the same places.
“If you’re in the Liberal campaign you’re not going to be spending a lot of dollars in Saskatchewan or Alberta because the return is not going to be there on votes,” said Matthews.
“Large portions of Ontario and Quebec become the real battleground.”
That’s been the case so far into the campaign.
Forty per cent of Liberal ads were targeted predominantly to Facebook users in Ontario, with 16 per cent geared towards Quebecers.
Similar numbers are seen in the Conservative ad campaigns (35 per cent in Ontario, 11 per cent in Quebec) but with a more targeted approach.
Whereas the Liberal party has pushed out ads to multiple provinces at once, Facebook’s ad manager allows advertisers to zero-in on specific provinces, cities or even the interests of users, Vivek Prabhu, a Toronto-based digital campaign expert at Hill+Knowlton Strategies with experience leading Conservative online election operations told CTV News.
It’s a strategy the Conservatives made use of in their Green Public Transit Tax Credit ad campaigns.
Each of the ads mention a specific city, note the amount of money transit users will save thanks to the tax break and the accompanying image includes the regional transit line, like Montreal’s blue subway cars.
A series of ads have also been released by the party targeting Filipino users which applaud the success of Jollibee, a Filipino multinational chain of restaurants.
“Hyper-personalization can be very beneficial,” said Prabhu, “You can use the same message but target and tailor it to different audiences.”
Repetition is also a key component to an effective digital ad campaign, he added, since it takes time for a message to sink in.
Nearly all of the Liberal party’s Facebook ad campaigns have one thing in common: Justin Trudeau.
Ninety-four per cent of Liberal Party ads surveyed predominantly feature Trudeau in the image or video.
But the reliance on Trudeau could be a liability for the Liberal party, Prabhu said, though it’s too early to see if recent controversies surrounding the Liberal leader will affect the vote.
All the negative attack ads being pushed out by other parties are certainly trying to make that happen.
Over one-fifth of NDP ads called Trudeau’s character and performance as prime minister into question.
The Conservatives are taking a more forceful approach to anti-Trudeau messaging on Facebook. A quarter of Conservative ads included an explicit anti-Trudeau theme, usually including the SNC-Lavalin affair and the party’s oft-used “not as advertised” tagline.
Recent controversies surrounding Trudeau, specifically the brownface and blackface photos and video scandal, are also a component of the Conservative attack ads on Facebook.
A video-based ad exclusively targeting Ontario Facebook users blends together American coverage of the scandal. It’s been seen over 100,000 times since it was launched on Oct 1 and, Prabhu says, it points to the nimbleness of advertising online.
“This is the advantage of digital ads compared to more traditional ads,” said Vivek. “A party can account for recent events and quickly bring it into their messaging.”
But while the Conservatives and Liberals lead the pack in terms of sheer numbers, the NDP may be employing the most effective ad campaign on Facebook, David Soberman, professor of marketing at the University of Toronto and Canadian national chair in strategic marketing, told CTV News.
One of the most-watched political ads on Facebook is from the NDP, featuring the party’s first campaign video accompanied by the tagline, “this election – Jagmeet Singh and the NDP are in it for you.”
The ad has over one million views, seen by younger-skewing Facebook uesrs primarily in Ontario, as data on the Facebook Ad Library shows.
But, for the most part, the NDP strategy is all about selling Singh to Quebecers.
Over half of the NDP ads surveyed target audiences in Quebec. Singh is at the forefront of these ads, with snippets of Singh participating in a French-language interview or accompanied by a Quebec candidate seen in many.
The NDP’s Quebec-focused TV spots are also being sent out as Facebook ads.
“Their messaging focuses on the distinct nationality of Quebeckers and the province’s unique culture,” Soberman said. “They’re trying to recreate the Jack Layton phenomenon.”
“If, at the beginning of the campaign, the party’s goal was to get people to know Jagmeet Singh,” said Soberman, “they’ve probably been more successful than the other parties overall.”