Under its new leader, the Conservative Party has seriously ramped up its Facebook adverts, outstripping Labour and the Lib Dems. Is Johnson gathering data for a general election?
Almost immediately after Boris Johnson’s election last month, the Conservative Party began to flood Facebook with adverts promoting their new leader. The adverts, which the Tory party has pumped out at a rate of over five hundred a day, focus on standard political talking points – Brexit, the NHS, schools, housing and the police. But what does the glut of Facebook ads tell us about the new prime minister’s plan for the next six months?
From July 24 to 30, the week of Johnson becoming prime minister, the conservatives spent £23,301 on 1,124 Facebook ads, the highest on Facebook for ads about social issues, elections or politics. This spend dwarfs the Labour party’s £4,672 and 74 ads and the Lib Dems spend of £1,560 on 65 ads over the same period.
The ads which ranged from Boris Johnson “schooling” Jeremy Corbyn over the NHS, to promises that Britain would swiftly leave the EU, reached highly specific demographics. The group Who Targets Me, which monitors political advertising on social media, found that a message to “join the Conservative Party”, for instance, was seen primarily by 18 to 24 year olds, with an audience that was 81 per cent male. Men over 45 were the most-targeted demographic – receiving 45 per cent of all adds.
The Conservatives are also consistently topping Facebook’s daily reports of spending. On July 30, the Conservatives spent £5,567 on ads, nearly doubling the three thousand a day they spent on July 28 and 29. The number of ads run on that day, 523, was the second highest number after Friends of the Earth’s 604. Labour, on the other hand, spent a relatively frugal £220 on 57 ads.
These ads appear as hundreds of subtle variations on a single theme. On 31 July, for instance, they focused on the state of Britain’s police force. All feature the words “more police = less crime” (sandwiched by a siren emoji and downward-facing arrow) and claim that the party will hire 20,000 more police officers.
Each of the ads’ appearance is slightly different, however – their only uniform feature is Boris Johnson. Most are photos of Johnson greeting police officers; some are videos of Johnson promising to put £1.1 billion towards policing. Some are black and white, and some are in colour. Others are bannered with “Let Boris Know” while some opt for “New Police Locator”. Clicking on the ad takes you to the Conservative party website, where an online application asks for your postcode, full name and email in order “to let Boris know” whereabouts he should these new police. The ads all cost under £100 and nearly all receive under one thousand impressions.
The reason for the subtle variations in these adverts is basic – the Tories are testing which ad proves most popular. “Digital marketers know that it’s very hard to predict an ad’s effectiveness, but it’s very easy to test it,” said Rob Blackie, a digital strategist who works with political parties. “So you might have twenty different messages – one might be about tax, one might be about the NHS, one might be about Brexit – and then you might have twenty different photos together to go with each of them, and twenty, slightly different forms of text alongside them – times 20 by 20 by 20 you get 8000 combinations quite quickly.”
It’s not unheard of to see campaigns with tens, or even hundreds, of thousands of variations. Even the most trivial of differences – a slightly different wording or photo – can have a dramatic effect on viewer engagement, explains Blackie, who worked on a tactical voting campaign at the last general election. “As general rule of thumb the more testing you do more likely you are to stumble upon a message, a wording or a picture that works particularly well,” he says.
The ads themselves are run for several reasons. The first is obvious, no different from running a TV ad: you want people to change their mind, and to nudge them towards voting for you.
The second is all about data. “They gather data as they go along,” says Blackie. “Imagine they put an ad in the field, and I target 25-40 year olds in smalls towns in Britain: when they collect email addresses, it comes from that ad group, so as well as the information that people voluntarily give up, they also get to say they came in through this ad set.”
Johnson’s campaign also seems keen to create stronger links with the people it’s targeting. “There are two versions of that, version one is get their email address because they’re just an ordinary voter and you want to send them emails and over time persuade them to vote conservative,” says Blackie. “Version two might be you’re trying to get volunteers [for face-to-face canvassing] and donors who are going to give you money – if you gather the email addresses of people who are pro-conservative and you keep them asking for money over time you can normally generate a positive return on that.”
But does mean that the Tories are slipping into general election mode? Perhaps, says Rachel Lavin, partnerships coordinator at Who Targets Me: “by understanding the past voting behaviour and future intentions of voters they can identify where swing votes lie and which districts are the most crucial to their wider electoral strategy.” This kind of nationwide data-gathering exercise could point towards a party that’s preparing to go to the national polls later in the year.
But it’s important to note, say Michela Redoano, associate professor of economics at the University of Warwick, that an increase in overall spend doesn’t necessarily mean that a party is ramping up for an election. “The reason for that is that what you spend does not correspond one-to-one to the number of ads,” says Federica Liberini, Senior Postdoctoral Researcher at the Swiss Federal Technological Institute, who co-authored the paper ‘Politics in the Facebook Era Evidence from the 2016 US Presidential Elections’ with Redoano. “Ads that are differently targeted, or more sophisticatedly designed, or more efficiently placed might have different unit prices, so if you have only one piece of information, which is the total spending on Facebook ads, it is difficult – unless you are a Facebook employee – to know what type of ads this spending corresponds to.”
It’s actually the fluctuation in the price of ads, primarily driven upwards by competition between political candidates for the attention of specific demographics, that represents the best indicator that a general election is coming. “Our research has shown that around a political election, there is a window of time, during which politicians seem to increase their demand of targeting independent individuals and audiences with political ads,” says Liberini. “And what our research shows is that this window is approximately 60 days before the election starts – during this 60 days, there is a sharp increase in the price for ads that are targeted at audiences that are not defined only by demographic characteristics, but also by political ideology.”
Also, since it takes time to persuade people to vote for you, a political party that has no other constraints should evenly advertise throughout the year, explains Blackie. The Tory party is also likely to have had a boost in income, he says, which often occurs after the election of a new leader. And the closer you get to an election the more likely expensive advertising gets, due to more people advertising. And finally, in order to game the national spending limit on campaigns for political parties, it makes sense to get this advertising in before an election is announced, when it isn’t constrained by this limit.
Then again, it may also indicate that we’re headed to the polls. “Obviously, if you’re going to have an election in six months time you’d definitely want to be advertising today,” says Blackie. “So certainly be it might be that.”