Why political Facebook ads are the most interesting political ads ever

There’s an argument that “political Facebook ads are just ads”.

After 2016’s Brexit and Trump victories, when both campaigns made claim to being Facebook ad geniuses, using them to swing the result in their favour, it became important to take a look and see whether they were, in fact, more than “ads”.

Over time, the reconstruction of those campaigns has taken much of the force from those original claims. The campaigns won, but the skill and impact of their work on Facebook is arguable at best.

For one, the teams behind them haven’t replicated their success in subsequent elections. Given this, it’s hard to sustain the argument that their ads upended the hierarchy of things that consistently matter in elections – public demand for change (or more of the same), an appealing candidate with an appealing programme and a campaign that can avoid unforced errors.

Instead their Facebook ads sit nestled somewhere in the list of things that campaigns do, but that you only hear about how good they were when they win.

If these two infamous campaigns’ Facebook ads weren’t really all that special, why do we spend so much time looking at them? For us, it’s because, in one place, they tell us a huge amount about the campaigns – and the character – of the people buying them.

The key difference between Facebook ads and all other political advertising formats that have gone before is that Facebook ads offer the full marketing “mix” for a campaign. Through them a campaign reveals itself, telling us more about how they see voters and supporters than any other ads that have gone before.

Facebook ads use text, images, video and audio to explain policy, tell stories about candidates and attack opponents. They’re targeted at every group of supporters and voters a campaign is interested in and expose the relative importance (to the campaign) of each.

So far, just like any other ads.

But beyond their simple existence as targeted ‘paid’ content, Facebook ads also behave like an ‘owned’ channel. This is because campaigns build audiences of supporters on and off-Facebook, then upload that data back into Facebook to reach people using ‘Custom Audiences’. Facebook charges campaigns to do this, and the resulting ads look a lot like the direct marketing you see in more traditional ‘owned’ channels such as email and direct mail (fundraising, event attendance, mobilisation).

And it’s not just acting as a ‘paid’ and ‘owned’ channel. Facebook ads are also operated as an ‘earned’ form of marketing, because those people seeing the ads can take the messages a campaign promotes and spread them to other people they know, validating their content by liking, sharing or commenting on them (though this is something we disagree with). Through this re-promotion, the ads say something about the popularity of a campaign, with both existing supporters and persuadable voters.

No other form of advertising that we know of does all of these things. Print and TV don’t. Direct mail is only one part of a marketing mix. YouTube is more like TV advertising. Twitter banned political ads. Google got rid of their custom audience-type product last year. They’re all important channels, but none of them holds a mirror up to a campaign in the way that Facebook advertising does.

Now you might read this post as being, in itself, something of an ad for Facebook ads. It’s not. As we say above, the evidence that they’re more persuasive than other forms of advertising is pretty thin.

Instead, we see it as another argument in favour of transparency. As citizens of democracies, we should be able to see what the people trying to win elections are really like. If a campaign is cynical about us, we should know it. If it respects us, treats us as wise, informed people to be trusted with important decisions that affect ourselves and others, we should know that too.

It’s the way that Facebook ads reveal something about those trying to win power, all within the confines of a small box of pixels, that makes them so particularly interesting.