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, it became important to take a look and see whether they were, in fact, more than that.
Over time, the reconstruction of those campaigns has taken much of the force from the 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. 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 campaigns that can avoid unforced mistakes. Instead the ads sat nestled somewhere in the list of things that campaigns do, but that you only hear about when they win.
If these two infamous campaigns’ Facebook ads weren’t that special, why does Who Targets Me think Facebook ads are so interesting and important?
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. As a result, through their ads, 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 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 them) 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 to the platform and use Facebook ads to reach those 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.
But it doesn’t end there. Facebook ads are also an ‘earned’ form of marketing, because people seeing the ads can take the messages a campaign promotes and spread them to other people they know, validating them by liking, sharing or commenting. Through this re-promotion, the ads say something about the popularity of a campaign, with both existing supporters and persuadable voters.
This is why transparency for political ads is so important, whether we find them supremely effective or not (though that matters a lot too).
We, as the citizens of democracies, have to 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 in one small box of pixels, that makes them so singularly interesting.