Spending on Facebook ads skyrockets amid election, as Liberals outspend all other parties combined

As party leaders campaign across the country in what is expected to be the most expensive federal election to date, a second multi-million-dollar campaign is playing out on Facebook.

The four federal parties with the most seats in Parliament have spent nearly $2.5 million combined on advertising across Facebook, Instagram and Messenger since July 31, according to data from Facebook’s Ad Library, which provides a public, searchable collection of all ads currently running from across Facebook apps and services.

And while each party is allocating more money toward online advertising than they did during the 2019 campaign, the federal Liberal Party alone has spent $1.5 million on 7,038 ads, far outpacing their competitors.

“The Liberal Party always saw Facebook ads as an opportunity to talk to the voters directly. In 2019, they actually spent less on ads than the Conservatives, who had fewer ads. But this time around they’re really spending,” Anatoliy Gruzd, professor and Canada Research Chair in privacy-preserving digital technologies at Ryerson University, told CTVNews.ca by phone.

“For the seven-day period at the end of August, the Liberal Party page spent half a million dollars – that’s just as much as they spent in the three months leading up to the 2019 election.”

Gruzd is part of the team responsible for the Ryerson University Social Media Lab’s Election 44 transparency and accountability initiative, which, in part, tracks Canadian political ad spending on Facebook.

Their platform, PoliDashboard, includes a data visualization tool that aggregates data from Facebook’s Ad Library to look at trends in ad spending and targeting.

More than halfway through the campaign, the data shows that parties are spending more money and devoting more time to microtargeting, a marketing strategy that relies on using users’ demographic and social media data (the things you like, who you are friends with, etc.) to identify the users to whom they want to campaign.

Even parties that aren’t spending millions of dollars on advertising, like the Bloc Quebecois, have drastically increased their ad buys compared to 2019.

“The Bloc spent about $17,000 in August, which is nothing really compared to the hundreds of thousands of dollars spent by other parties,” he said.

“But, if we put it in perspective, in total for the whole campaign in 2019, the Bloc only had 16 registered ads on Facebook. If we look at the time period from Aug. 16, the beginning of the election campaign, until today, we see that the Bloc has over 700 ads.”

Whether this means Facebook ads are more effective than traditional campaigning has yet to be seen. But Gruzd notes this uptick in digital marketing may have something to do with the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s also possible that during the pandemic there are fewer opportunities to have face-to-face rallies, and all of the political parties are realizing that Facebook ads are one and sometimes the only way to speak to certain groups directly,” he explained.

“As a result, many of the targeted ads keep a specific issue in mind, like climate change, daycare, taxes, and they target to certain demographic groups on Facebook.”

WHO’S TARGETING WHO?

According to the Ryerson team’s analysis, during the first two weeks of the campaign the Liberals, Conservatives and NDP ran most of their ads in the four largest provinces: Ontario, Quebec, British Columbia and Alberta. Most of the Bloc’s ads ran in Quebec.

Both the Liberals and the NDP largely targeted female Facebook users, while the Conservatives most frequently targeted male users, falling in line with data from Nanos Research that shows the Conservatives are surging with male voters and Liberals with female voters.

Gruzd says the most interesting difference between ad strategies of the different parties, however, was in the age group of targeted voters.

According to the data, the Liberals frequently targeted their ads towards seniors, especially those 65 and older. Similarly, the Bloc mostly targeted men in the 45 to 64 age group and women 65 and older.

The Conservatives, on the other hand, aimed for middle-aged voters, while the NDP went after younger voters.​