Discover more from Full Disclosure
Are the Tories showing signs of life?
After months of near silence, they're buying ads again...
Welcome to the first issue of Full Disclosure, a new newsletter from Who Targets Me.
Every couple of weeks, we’ll bring you news, data and our views of what we’re seeing in UK digital political advertising. In future issues, we’ll also be chatting with experts and practitioners. Our goal is to use the transparency we’ve been campaigning and building tools for over the last five years to try and explain what, how and - most importantly - why parties and politicians are buying ads.
Future issues might change a bit, as we experiment with what we cover and the format. To that end, if you think we should be doing anything differently please say.
So let’s get this party started…
… with a bit of methodology.
For Full Disclosure, we’ll mostly be working with platform ad library data. Since 2018, the two largest ad platforms for political ads - Meta and Google - have operated ad libraries to help improve transparency (and help them try and avoid further political ad-related scandals).
There are thousands of political advertisers in the Meta Ad Library (there are fewer in the Google one, which uses a narrower definition of what ‘political’ is). Many of these advertisers are not actually very political at all. They’re charities, companies selling environmental products, singer/songwriters and so on and so forth. To make the political ad library data useful (at least in terms of understanding how people are using ads to serve electoral goals), we assign advertisers to political parties (or “independents” or “others”).
At this moment, we’ve done that for over 7,000 UK political advertisers (and discarded many thousands more as irrelevant to elections). There are currently 1,926 Labour Party advertisers categorised. There are 1,754 Tory and 1,023 Liberal Democrat pages. And so on for the Greens, Reform UK, the SNP and the Northern Irish parties. Each and every week, we assign a couple of hundred more pages to parties, particularly as new advertisers pop up ahead of elections (as they are now, for the May locals).
What did we see this month?
Across those 7,000 pages, just under 10% of them were active advertisers on Meta (Facebook and Instagram) over the last month. Between them, they spent just under £67,000 and ran a little over 4,500 ads.
Per Google’s Political Ad Library, no one ran any ads at all. No search ads, no YouTube video ads, no display banners. Zilch. Nada. Nothing.
Conclusion: Facebook and Instagram are still the go-to places for day-to-day digital political advertising in the UK.
Here’s what the parties did…
Though the initial ‘stop the boats’ announcement got Lineker’ed, the party has continued to support the policy by spending a noticeable amount of money on ads for the first time since Rishi Sunak became PM (around £1,000/day over the last week, racking up over a million impressions).
Here’s what the ads look like:
As it stands, they’re being disproportionately seen by older demographics and mostly men. For some of the ads the distribution is quite striking (this one has over 300,000 impressions delivered, so it’s not statistical noise):
At part of the same theme, the party has also launched a number of targeted ads calling out Labour MPs for voting against similar laws in the past.
All of the MPs targeted are in marginal seats, with majorities of a few thousand at most. They’re a direct expression of the party’s “80/20” election strategy, which attempts to protect 80 seats they hold, and try to attack in 20 others.
Labour targets individual Tory MPs a lot (they’re able to roll out hundreds of them in response to specific votes, and frequently do). Now the Tories are doing the same back to them.
Following last week’s Budget, the party is also running ads on what they see as the key retail announcements - childcare, the fuel duty freeze. The former are being targeted at women, primarily in the 25-34 age bracket, while the fuel duty ads are largely targeted at middle-aged men. The Budget seemed to be broadly well received, though some polling after the fact suggested the public didn’t trust the Government to deliver across everything that was announced. By targeting individual measures at the groups most likely to benefit them, the Tories will be hoping people will pick and choose the best bits.
London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) comes into force at the end of August. The Tory ads try to show the effect of this change on the surrounding counties. Electorally, many of these places are traditional Tory strongholds, but with many people (particularly families) choosing to leave London during the pandemic or because of the high cost of housing, more seats will now be winnable for Labour. The ads ask people to sign a petition - the party is hoping to build an targetable list of voters in the London surrounds who it can try to win over when the election campaigning starts in earnest (including for May’s local elections, where the Tories risk losing many council seats).
This week, the Conservatives began to promote postal voting for the May election, targeting older voters. There are two readings of the new voter ID rules that will be in place by then - one, that Labour will be hurt, because its voters are less likely to have ID. But two, the Tories themselves will be hurt because their voters are more likely to show up in person, and may be less prepared for the need to bring ID with them. If they’re sent away, they won’t come back. The ads almost exclusively target older people (65+).
Since 2019, Labour has been the most active online advertiser in UK politics. This isn’t only true of the main party page - Keir Starmer, Anas Sarwar and Rachel Reeves are all prominent “characters” in the story they want to tell.
National issues get a local touch
Labour often tailors the content of its ads to make them locally (or at least regionally) more relevant, using place names, photos and stats. For example, following the Budget, they ran ads about their National Wealth Fund policy, highlighting the number of jobs it would create in different regions across the UK.
They’ve done the same with ads about resources for the NHS. Since early March, Labour has called out over 50 Tory MPs for their failure to vote in support of more money for medical training.
The ads were posted on Facebook only (not Instagram), and have disproportionately been seen by people over 55, for whom healthcare is likely to be a higher priority.
Law and order
In mid-to-late February, Labour also ran a number of Facebook and Instagram ads focusing on law and order, and crime prevention.
However, Labour has also specifically directed tailored messages towards younger audiences, particularly women under 35, on Instagram. It’s part of an effort to try and demonstrate the party’s commitment to women’s safety following the murders of Sarah Everard and Sabina Nessa.
Gearing up for the local elections
Like the Tories, Labour is keen for people to vote by post (about 20% of people do). They’re trying to be a bit more creative with these ads, showing the working-age voters they’re targeting how postal voting saves you time on the day that can be used for better things.
The Lib Dems have been quiet, spending only £3,500 via local rather than national pages (their main page hasn’t run ads since Dec ‘22). Of their 10 highest spending pages, seven of them are local or regional party organisations, with the rest being local councillors, candidates or MPs.
These pages are focused on local issues (e.g. river pollution, roadworks), with few mentions of national policies. The issue of river pollution will stick to the Tories over the next 18 months - it’s going to be hard for them to shake it off, even with big announcements and cabinet ministers pictured in their wellies.
Michelle O’Neill of Sinn Féin has spent £3,400 on over 160 ads this month, covering topics including the cost of living and healthcare under the banner of being a “First Minister For All”.
In the coming weeks, it's just about possible that the impasse in Stormont could be overcome, at which point she’d take on the role. By contrast, the DUP haven’t used ads to promote their objections (they’ve not bought any since last year’s Northern Ireland Assembly election campaign).
Laurence Fox’s Reclaim Party is a relatively large buyer of ads. In particular, they’ve been promoting the conspiracy theory that “15 minute cities” are actually a measure to increase public control.
While ads about 15 minute cities have been seen primarily by older men aged 55-64 and 65+, Reclaim’s ads about being “worried about what your children are being taught at school” were targeted at “parents”, meaning they were seen by a younger demographic that skewed towards women.
Notably absent are any ads relating to the SNP leadership contest. None of the three candidates to replace Nicola Sturgeon as First Minister - Ash Regan, Kate Forbes or Humza Yousaf - have run any ads to try and drive members into their camp. To be fair to them, the last example of a UK politician trying to win a leadership campaign (as opposed to a normal election) by spending on digital ads was Rishi Sunak, and he lost to Liz Truss. It’s a hard thing to do well, with such a small, geographically dispersed electorate.
While part of their role is to monitor ongoing developments in political campaigning, as well as track the way people spend money, the Electoral Commission is a quite prolific advertiser in its own right. So far this month they’ve spent almost £10,000 on their own voter registration drive, re-using the “Got 5?” campaign they first ran for last year’s local elections.
A few other bits to finish
We’re working to produce data for every election we can fit into our schedule. This involves us translating and tagging data, which we’ve built some really great new tools for. If you’ve got this far down, maybe you’re interested in helping out? Get in touch if so!
Our friend Fabio has been building dashboards (using our tagging data) for elections in the Netherlands.
Katie Harbath, ex lead for political ads at Facebook, wrote about being inside the company as the Cambridge Analytica story broke.
The Who Targets Me browser extension is tracking political ads from over 36,000 Facebook pages (we literally just finished counting). Wild! If you haven’t already, install it and then share the fact you have.
Lastly, if you like our work and find it useful, please consider taking up the option of a paid subscription or making a donation.
See you in a couple of weeks!
Team FD @ WTM