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Local elections: The final week in ads
What the parties have been saying and who they've been saying it to
The 2023 local elections are almost upon us, with 230 whole or part-council elections in England, 4 Mayors and 11 Northern Irish council elections taking place tomorrow.
As campaigns go, it feels like this one had focus for a week or two, with the main parties talking about crime and policing as well as council tax, and then lost it in order to head back into more comfortable “national politics” territory (small boats, the NHS, energy windfall taxes, tuition fees), as well as the usual expectation management (“anything other than a severe beating will be a win for us”).
Nonetheless, the parties have been pretty active with advertising this week, spending over £115k on Meta ads in the last 7 days (to 29th April). Here’s how that breaks down:
Going further, here’s the top 10 highest spending pages for each party:
and for the top 10 spenders from other English parties:
What to take away from this?
The fact that the Tories have spent more than anyone else is unusual. For the last few elections (local and General, London Mayoral), they’ve been outspent by Labour. The Liberal Democrats have occasionally spent more than them too.
But it does depend how you look at the data.
The majority (£40k) of the £54k they spent this week was by the main Conservative Party account. Labour, on the other hand has spent less money on its main page, instead spreading it across Keir Starmer’s page, as well as a number of larger regional party pages. While Labour had 7 accounts spending more than £1k in the last week, only two Tory pages did the same.
Looking at everything together, you end up with figures that are broadly similar - £54k for the Tories vs. £48k for Labour, each spread across roughly 200 party-affiliated pages - with the Tory spend heavily skewed towards a single page.
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What have the ads been saying?
The biggest campaign the Tories ran over the last week targeted Labour over channel crossings. In the run up to a Parliamentary vote last Wednesday, they spent heavily asking the public to “Tell Labour: Stop the boats” (and hand over an email address while doing it). After the vote, they re-launched the ads as a petition (again, more email list building).
Across all the variations of these ads, the party spent around £22,000, racking up more than 2.5 million impressions (though it’s hard to say how many new email addresses the party would have gathered off the back of this).
The second most seen ad featured the expansion of the ULEZ to cover all of London. Based on the postcodes targeted, the ads aren’t targeted at Londoners at all, instead being shown across the counties around the edges of the city (and as far away as Cambridge). If you drive a car, and live anywhere near London, the party wants to reach you. Again, the ads were quite ubiquitous, being seen over 2 million times.
A third batch of ads focused on police recruitment numbers, and how the party had “delivered their manifesto commitment” in getting 20,000 new officers signed up (Full Fact says this is true, but the net gain is only 3,500). Yet again, big money means big reach, and these ads were displayed over 1.5 million times.
Lastly, Lee Anderson (who’s currently Deputy Party Chair), has fronted up a bunch of ads asking supporters to “make a plan to vote”. Is the video vaguely comic? Depends on your taste. Is it a bit cringey? For sure. Is it authentically “Lee Anderson”? Seems so. Either way, if the party can get these a bit more polished, we suspect everyone will be seeing a lot more of him over the next 18 months.
“Make a plan to vote” ads have been a common tactic for Labour and the US Democratic Party for the last few election cycles, but isn’t something we can recall the Tories doing before. The theory behind it is that, by making a plan, you become anchored to the idea of voting, increasing the chance you will (very important in low-turnout local elections). One notable thing about the way the Tories are doing it is they’re asking a question about the ID you’ll need to bring with you, hoping to remind their voters of this key fact (don’t you forget either!).
Overall therefore, this last week has seen a massive uptick in Conservative advertising activity. There’s been nothing like it from them since 2019, and nothing like it in previous local or Mayoral elections either. Furthermore, unlike in the rest of the period post-2019, their material feels a lot more “election-ready”, with better design, punchier messaging, more consistent use of list-building and the ability to run several strands simultaneously.
The only noteworthy thing missing from Tory ads is the person considered to be their biggest electoral asset - the Prime Minister. He’ll surely emerge as more of a “character” in their advertising strategy over the coming months, and we’ll be keeping an eye out for when he does.
As we mentioned above, Labour’s campaign has been spread across a number of pages (the main party one, Keir Starmer’s, Labour North West, East Midlands Labour, Labour North, to name a few).
Unlike the Tories “go big” approach, Labour tends to run lots of smaller ads.
For example, there are 44 variations of the below ad on the cost of living, each identical to the eye, each targeted at different regions.
There are 21 variations of this NHS ad (200k impressions):
And 51 variations of this ad about sewage spills (total impressions: 700k).
The point being, we think the Labour campaign has been pretty geographically targeted towards picking up seats in the councils below (we extracted all the postcodes they’re running ads in, and looked them up against the matching council), whereas the Tory campaign seems spendier and broader. Our hypothesis here being that Labour’s theory is about trying to win council seats (and councils) by targeting them directly, whereas the Tories are trying to hold as much as they can by motivating and mobilising its core vote (see small boats and Lee Anderson appearances).
Of the regional pages, both Yorkshire and the Humber Labour and Labour North are running this attack/cost of living crisis ad:
It hasn’t reached a huge number of people, but it’s interesting to see the party trying to work out ways of tying Sunak to the Johnson/Truss eras (does Truss get an “era”?). It doesn’t feel like they’ve quite landed it yet, but we should expect a lot more of this sort of ad.
Speaking of party leaders, Keir Starmer’s ads have typically been quite “get to know me”, focusing on his personal story, showing him listening to voters and so on. This one’s a more traditional last-few-days “get out the vote” appeal, emphasising points of difference with the Tories and ending with a clear call to action. It’s a bit more uptempo and energetic.
The other parties
It always feels a bit mean to lump together the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and the many, many independents down here at the bottom, but they are only spending 5-10% versus the two biggest parties. (We’ll try to do something focusing more directly on their approaches in the future.)
The Lib Dems want Dominic Raab to stand down as an MP to force a by-election. Their ads ask people to “add their name” to demand one. The goal here is to build a decent-sized email list in Esher and Walton so that if/when he does stand down (prediction: at the election, not before), they’re in a more organised position to pick up the seat (prediction: they would have anyway). This should be easier if they’re up against someone new. Otherwise, they’re quiet, leaving all campaigning to local parties and candidates.
The Green Party has been running the same Meta ads for a month and spent just £109 on them this week. They’re the fifth highest spending party-affiliated page. Despite this, it’s likely they’ll do pretty well tomorrow.
Finally, a note on Google ads and the importance of Facebook
Google’s Ad Library for the UK seems… broken. We look at it regularly, and nothing much changes. While we’re confident that parties are spending money on Google and YouTube at the moment (they’ve told us), that data isn’t showing up. Obviously this is deeply frustrating, particularly during an election campaign.
We hope it gets repaired soon, because it’ll help us answer a very important question that goes beyond what parties are up to in their campaigns. The question is: “Is Facebook still as important as it used to be?”
One way to look at that is to see whether UK party spending on the platform is falling year-on-year. Answer: It’s something of a mixed picture, depending on what you look at.
1) The Tories have spent a lot this week, and have already blown through last year's number for the week before the local elections (£44,500 vs. £12,100). Some of the ads they're running at the moment have already crept into the top 15 ads (by reach) that they've ever run. It points to an escalation of their social media ads strategy under Sunak (vs. under Johnson).
2) We also totted up the spending by Labour's main pages that are also active this year (pages = Labour, Keir Starmer, Labour North West, Yorks & Humber Labour). In 2022, that came to £21,434. This year, the same pages have spent £25,229 in the last week (with a few days of data still to emerge). Quite consistent vs. 2022.
3) Last year, the local elections overlapped with many others (Mayoral elections, Northern Ireland Assembly elections), and covered different areas - all London councils, plus Scotland and Wales. It's hard to separate these strands. Lots of pages spent relatively heavily last year, but are obviously absent this year, meaning that though last year's total for political advertisers we've identified (around £265k in the final week) looks big versus this year (£125k), it's not a fair comparison.
4) It's possible some spend has shifted to Google/YouTube, but with their ad library broken, so we can't tell if that’s happened or not. That said, we doubt it’s been that dramatic, particularly as making good video ads is difficult/expensive, and most local campaigns won't have the resource to do it. Facebook is generally easier to make acceptable ads for, so they'll stick to what they know.
As we said, a mixed picture.
The Electoral Commission's spending data shows that Facebook ad spending has increased every election for the last few cycles (2015, 2017, 2019). Even with fewer people on Facebook, we'd still expect spending to hold up for a while yet. After all, there aren’t many other places to put the same money (you can’t run political ads on TikTok and would print ads be a better bet?), and there are still a lot of people on the platform, even if fewer.
Perhaps most importantly, campaigns just aren't as efficient in allocating resources in response to changing circumstances as you'd think. Given this, Facebook ad spending seems likely to be a lagging indicator due to organisational inertia and the lack of alternatives, rather than a leading one.
Phew, that was a long one. Thanks for sticking with it.
More next week, when we’ve had a chance to look at the full picture, right up to and including polling day itself.
Team Full Disclosure @ Who Targets Me