As the 2018 midterm elections approach in the United States, digital political advertising is hot on the minds of candidates, campaign managers, and political action committees (PACs) throughout the country. In increasing numbers, politicians are turning away from traditional media channels and toward digital and social networks like Facebook as a means to better reach their voters.
As digital budgets grow, however, so do the regulations surrounding digital political advertising. What was once considered unchartered territory is now one of the hottest subjects of debate, as public interest groups and government agencies alike scramble to apply the same regulations that govern traditional media to the digital world.
Here's what all of this regulation means—and what advertisers can and cannot do within the current policies.
The political digital advertising landscape
This year alone, the political advertising market in the U.S. is forecast to reach a whopping $8.5 billion,. While this forecast comes at a meager 2.5% hike from what political advertisers spent in the last midterm election (2014), the distribution has changed dramatically. Advertisers are turning away from television and print advertising and toward digital channels. In 2014, digital made up 3.2% of all political advertising spend, totaling $270M. In 2018, digital is expected to jump to 22.3% of advertising spend, coming in at an impressive $1.9B. (Looking back one more midterm, to 2010, digital spend came to less than $15M.)
Of course, it isn’t just the politicians and super PACs that have advertising on their minds. Since the 2016 presidential elections and allegations of foreign meddling, rarely a day goes by without political advertising making the news. Yet, while consumer interest is at an all-time high, it’s far from the first time political advertising has been in the news.
According to our analysis of Google search trends, for at least the last 14 years (unfortunately we don’t have data from before this point), there has been a significant spike in the number of people searching for “election ads” in Google around October of every other year, corresponding with U.S. presidential elections (the big spikes) and midterm elections (the smaller spikes):
While the debate was always there, 2016 marked a turning point in public discourse. For the first time, digital political marketing spend reached into the billions, and the rise of fake commenters and bots and racially and religiously divisive advertising revealed just how easy a vote can be influenced—even with complete anonymity. With voters across the political spectrum calling for reform, digital advertising networks have been forced to crack down on anonymous and manipulative political advertising.
While Twitter is rolling out a “transparency center” to trace digital ads back to their sponsors, and Google is dedicated to combating the dissemination of fake news sites, it is Facebook that’s been the center of attention. The social media behemoth boasts what is, perhaps, the most powerful advertising platform, allowing advertisers to tap into the wealth of content the network’s two billion monthly active users have shared to the network. This hyper-specific targeting, along with the platform’s built-in virality, makes it a force to be reckoned with for advertisers of any industry. And, in the wrong hands, a “means for the precision seeding of propaganda.”
Facebook has responded to the public outcry and the scrutiny of a Senate investigation by taking a stricter stance on campaign transparency in an attempt to minimize possible election interference. The news has come in a series of updates to their ad platform, including restricting potentially manipulative targeting options and requiring a separate advertisement format for political ads, to be rolled out in the months leading up to the 2018 midterms.
With all the policy changes in the news, it can be a full-time job to keep up with what it all means for politics.
Fortunately, you don’t have to.
We’ve been keeping close tabs on Facebook for the last several months and put together a list of everything you need to know about political marketing on Facebook.
First, let’s take a look at what you can’t do with Facebook political advertising:
Advertise as a foreign entity
This one likely goes without saying, but both the Federal Election Committee (FEC) and the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) prohibit foreign individuals, corporations, or government entities from making contributions to, or otherwise spend funds (directly or indirectly) on, U.S. elections.
After appearing in front of a Senate investigation committee and facing a potential lawsuit from the city of Seattle for potential violations of campaign financing laws, this issue has been top-of-mind for Facebook. The social media giant is now taking preventative measures to ensure that political advertising remains free of foreign interference.
As part of these measures, Facebook announced last week that anyone looking to launch a political advertising campaign will first be sent a postcard to verify a U.S. address. If you see one of these in the mail, you’ll have to type in the special code on the postcard before you can launch your campaign.
"If you run an ad mentioning a candidate,” said Katie Harbath, Facebook's director of global politics and government outreach at a conference of the National Association of Secretaries of State, “we are going to mail you a postcard and you will have to use that code to prove you are in the United States."
In an effort both to further prevent foreign interference and to promote transparency in advertising, Facebook now requires a clear line between advertisements and their sponsors. In other words, it needs to be crystal clear who is paying for an ad.
Facebook will soon require political advertisers to verify both their entity and their location through thorough documentation, including the postcard test mentioned above. Once approved, political advertisers will be given access to a new ad format that includes a required “Paid for by:” disclosure. When clicked, this disclosure will show the viewer additional details about the advertiser and why they are seeing this particular ad.
Political advertisers will also soon be forced to have a new “View Ads” link on their Facebook page. On this page, users will be able to see an archive of the current and historical advertisements run by that political entity. These will be viewable regardless of whether or not the user fits the original targeting parameters.
Inside this searchable archive, viewers will be able to see:
- A record of every advertisement from the past four years.
- Detailed information on the reach and budget of each ad.
- A breakdown of the demographics (age, gender, location, etc.) reached by each ad.
The implications for this are clear: Don’t advertise anything you wouldn’t want your voters, the press, or your opposition to dig up.
This “View Ads” section is currently being beta tested in Canada and is expected to expand to the United States by summer of 2018. Facebook is also reportedly working on new machine learning tools that will detect any political ads that attempt to bypass the required verification.
Post sensational or discriminatory content
This one applies to all Facebook advertisers, not just those in the political realm.
While many political issues are partisan and, by nature, controversial, such issue-related advertisements still need to comply with Facebook’s entire list of policies. Namely, ads cannot depict shocking, sensational, disrespectful, or overtly violent content.
You are more than welcome to take a stance on divisive issues such as the second amendment; however, using an image of a gun pointed toward the viewer to stir up emotion would be considered excessively violent content.
Additionally, advertisements cannot contain hate speech or discriminatory content aimed at a specific group of people. Race, ethnicity, origin, age, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, family status, disability, and medical or genetic conditions are all considered protected classes, both by Facebook and a number of federal laws. It is okay to take a stance on issues like immigration and transgender rights in your advertising, but it is not okay to advertise crude generalizations about immigrants or transgender individuals.
Reference personal attributes
With Facebook’s targeting, political advertisers can reach just about any voter bloc they can name. As we’ll explore later in this post, advertisers can target on the basis of age, race, gender, orientation, family status, and most of those other traits considered protected classes. However, while you’re welcome to be as specific as you’d like in your targeting, your actual ad messaging cannot include any assertions or implications about these attributes.
For example, you may target people Facebook identifies as “very conservative.” However, your ad should not assume that everyone who sees it actually identifies this way.
In your ad copy, it is acceptable to say “Join Republicans in supporting xyz.” It is not acceptable to say “Join other Republicans in supporting xyz” or “Join Republicans like you in supporting xyz,” as both of these indicate an assumption that the viewer is a certain political party.
Solicit political affiliation
Just as advertisers can’t assume a political affiliation in their messaging, they also can’t solicit this information through the Facebook platform, without the company’s prior permission.
Using a Lead Ad form field, political advertisers cannot ask viewers:
- If they identify as a certain political party.
- How they voted in previous elections.
- How they plan to vote in coming elections.
- Whether or not they support a political candidate.
And now, what you can do with political ads:
Target down party lines
Facebook is a treasure trove of user-generated data, and that’s precisely what makes it so valuable to advertisers. Using machine learning, Facebook can categorize its users into thousands of dimensions based on the type of content users post, read, and share. Advertisers can then filter their ad targeting by any of these dimensions.
In the political sphere, Facebook stands out as the one advertising platform that will allow you to target down party lines and ideologies. Using text analysis, Facebook can categorize users into targetable segments, including:
- Political affiliation: Very Liberal, Liberal, Moderate, Conservative, and Very Conservative.
- Likelihood of engaging with liberal, moderate, or conservative political content.
- Those who have expressed admiration for key political influencers, including presidents Donald Trump, Barack Obama, and George W. Bush.
While not perfect, Facebook generally does a good job at identifying political affiliations.
Facebook also partners with data providers like Acxiom and Epsilon to segment by offline data, including political donations to conservative or liberal causes. While available, pulling in these third-party filters will increase your advertising costs, as part of the fee will now be passed on to the data providers.
Rally known supporters
In addition to finding new supporters, Facebook can also help you re-engage past or current supporters. For this, political marketers have three options:
- Advertising to followers of their candidate’s or PAC’s Facebook page. While you might think that all of your page followers will see the content you share, Facebook has continually roped in your organic reach, even among those who have liked your page, in an effort to incentivize paid advertising. Today, as few as 2.6% of your page followers will see your organic content. Promoting the same content to your page followers will help you reach the other 97.4%.
- Retargeting people who have viewed your website. By adding a single line of code to your website (a Facebook Pixel), you can advertise to anyone who has spent time on your site. This is a great strategy for getting in front of your biggest supporters—those that have taken the time to look into your site and platform.
- Advertising to a list of voters. With Facebook, advertisers can upload custom audiences, or lists of individuals they’d like to target. These lists can take several forms, including street addresses, phone numbers, emails, and names. The more information you feed Facebook, the more accurate the platform will be able to match your list. If you have a list of past voters, volunteers, or donors, this can be a great way to re-engage them.
Drive local attendance for rallies, debates, and meet-and-greets
Geofencing an event venue can help ensure a full house for your next meet-and-greet.
Have an event coming up? Facebook can be a great way to drive sign-ups or get in front of attendees.
Using real-time geofencing or active-trade-area targeting, advertisers can draw a bubble around an event venue and advertise to anyone within the surrounding area. Inversely, advertisers can use a strategy called geo-conquesting to target the opposition’s events with messaging geared to swing voters.
Target swing counties and strategic locations
While it can be costly to advertise to an entire district, political marketers can stretch their dollars by picking and choosing where they want to deploy their ad spend.
Using the same geotargeting tactics as above, advertisers can hone in on the most strategic locations for their advertising, such as swing counties, where a small advertising push might be enough to influence the vote.
Looking at your voters through the lens of location can also help you target key demographics with contextually relevant messages. Want to reinforce your Christian values to churchgoers? Draw a geofence around the top churches in your area. Want to reach the educated youth? Target nearby colleges and universities. Want to target unions? Advertise to factories, schools, and other workplaces characterized by union membership.
Targeting local universities can be a great way to rally youth.
Political advertisers are even beginning to tap into data science and geospatial intelligence, combined with census data and voting records, to help them locate and visualize these key locations. Using these approaches, advertisers and campaign managers can pinpoint their most probable voters—even if they aren’t the classic conservatives or liberals that pop up in Facebook’s categorizations.
Target based on issues and ideologies
Facebook’s content analysis can also help you get in front of constituents who have expressed an interest or taken a side on key voter issues. Using Detailed Targeting, advertisers can reach groups including:
- Supporters of the National Rifle Association (NRA).
- Supporters of gun control.
- Those who have expressed pro-choice ideologies.
- Those who engage with, or distribute content, around social justice and human rights.
- Those who read content about either border control or immigrant rights.
- Those who have liked pages related to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), global warming, and other environmental issues.
- Those engaging with scientific articles or working at a laboratory, university, or think tank.
By reaching one of these groups with an advertisement related to a relevant issue, you can get to what matters most to a constituent. At Spatially, we call this reaching the right audience at the right place and time with the right message.
Target key voter blocs
Facebook lets you mix and match demographic filters to get in front of any voter bloc.
Similarly to issue-based targeting, Facebook’s Detailed Targeting allows you to reach specific demographics, including:
- Specific races and ethnicities*
- Specific religions*
- Specific industries and job titles: School teachers, small business owners, etc.
- Specific education levels and fields of study
- Specific income brackets*
- Specific household compositions: Parents with toddlers, parents with teenagers, stay-at-home parents, newlyweds, recently engaged couples, etc.
- Specific relationship statuses: Single, married, divorced, widowed, civil union, etc.
- Homeowners or renters
- Expats and those born in a different country
- U.S. Veterans
*May require some creative targeting. While you can’t specifically target African-Americans or Catholics, for example, you can target those interested in African-American studies/culture or those who went to a Catholic school. Advertisers can also back into more precise targeting by using a combination of the strategies above, overlaying census and location data to find the neighborhoods and area characterized by certain demographics and other parameters.
Don’t get caught between policies
Facebook is an incredibly powerful tool in the hands of a savvy campaign manager. It can be used to find your most likely voters and encourage them to get out and vote.
It’s also easier said than done. Now more than ever, political advertising is in a state of flux. With the pressure on Facebook to combat the spread of fakes news and propaganda, the social network has been struggling for the past year to spot and prevent FEC violations. In preparation for the upcoming midterm elections, nearly a week has gone by that the company hasn’t announced some new policy change to how political candidates can advertise and verify their identity.
At Spatially, we’re staying on top of the changes so you don’t have to. Our team of experts are trained in compliance and can help you put together a political advertising strategy that works for your goals—and won’t get you booted from Facebook. If you’d like to learn more about our work in the political space, give us a shout, and we’ll be in touch.
Until then, happy campaigning and be sure to follow our blog to stay on top of compliance-related issues as they develop.