What did Rishi Sunak spend £42,093 on for Christmas?
A lot of Facebook is ads is what. But what do they mean?
The Facebook Ad Library, tells us Rishi Sunak spent £42,093 on ads on the platform in the week from Christmas Day to New Year’s Eve, and just under £85,000 over the last month.
Mostly, that money went into ads asking people to follow his Facebook page, targeting those who 'look like' his existing page followers. In return, he's seen his page follower count grow by around 100,000 users (from 700k to just over 800k) since the beginning of December.
Sunak's ad spending is massive - an unprecedented amount for a UK politician outside of an election campaign. For example, Boris Johnson 'only' ever bought £254,000 worth of FB ads, including the 2019 campaign period. At the current rate, Sunak (£138,000 in total Facebook ad spending, ever) will pass Johnson’s score in the next four to five weeks, well before the earliest predicted date for the start of an election campaign. And of course once that starts, the number will go up and up.
In the most recent party donation figures, the Tories enjoyed a big fundraising advantage in Q3 2023, with Lord John Sainsbury giving them £10m, meaning they outraised Labour by that number. While both main parties seem confident they'll raise and spend more than they ever have before in 2024, having the money in the bank early is something the Tories are now taking advantage of in the form of a big push on digital ads. We think that’s a foretaste of just how digital 2024 will be.
So what can we learn from Sunak’s Christmas splurge?
1. Can it tell us the election date?
Are the Tories spending now to prepare for a May election? Perhaps. They're definitely spending earlier than you might expect for a November date, but for us, it’s not enough to say for sure. Spending can go up, but it can also come down. Sunak spent almost nothing in 2023, until he suddenly started doing so late in the year. Furthermore, the Tories haven’t done much with any of their digital assets since 2019 (Labour have been more consistent in their approach), so this could just be a surge designed to catch them up a bit, acquire some fresh data and get things moving in the right direction. If their spending continues over the next few weeks, and/or they start to run some ads on other services, then that would be a stronger signal for a May election.
But what about November? £40k a week is a lot on ads, but even if they sustain that level of spending all the way through to November, it adds up to *only* £1.8m. That's just 5% of the maximum allowable party spend (£34m-ish) this time. With the limit increasing by £16m-ish this year, there's plenty of headroom to 'go long', and still have plenty left over to spend a large amount in the final weeks once the election has been formally called. £10k a day could just be the new normal.
But surely this means they couldn’t go to January 2025? From a spending point of view, early ‘25 isn’t that different to November. There’s lots of reasons not to, but having now run so many ads over Christmas, they would likely have a better sense of what kind of response they’d get if they were campaigning this time next year. So probably not, but they still could if they felt they had to.
In sum, on election timing, the ads show a big increase in activity, but for us they still don’t point conclusively towards May. One benefit of this is that it keeps Labour and everyone else guessing, tempting them to start spending big money to keep up. But this could be costly if they get it wrong, particularly if they find it hard to raise a similar amount. The problem is keeping your own side guessing too, making it harder for your own candidates to know when to spark up their own campaigns.
2. Does it tell us how the campaign will be fought?
It's notable that the ads are trying to get people to follow Sunak's page, rather than the main Tory party one. It’s absolutely obvious that Sunak is going to be front and centre in his party’s campaign, but this is another data point in support of the ‘presidential’ style it’ll take. He polls a bit ahead of his party, albeit the gap isn’t as wide as it was, so a campaign based on trying to get people to choose a Prime Minister, rather than a government, makes some sense (although it’s not that simple - he still polls behind Starmer as 'best PM').
The risk is that this is less good for individual Tory candidates in marginals where the Sunak brand doesn’t help, nor is it much use for May’s local and mayoral elections. It’s also of no use at all over the longer term, should Sunak fail to win and the party need a new leader (by way of comparison, Boris Johnson's 2m Facebook followers now get one quite random post each month. Like the man himself, it’s out of the game).
Sunak’s ads are very generic, with just a simple request to “follow my page” and a photo of him in various campaign-y situations (in front of a Christmas tree, meeting soldiers, with some kids in a school). People who click them are more likely, but not guaranteed, thanks to the FB algorithm, to see more of his posts organically. Other than that, there's no attempt at communication or persuasion here. If you're engaging with the ads, you’re either already a likely Tory voter, or at least a bit Sunak-curious. They aren’t about finding issues that might resonate with swing voters. The idea is simple - to create direct lines of ongoing communication with as many supporters as possible, without needing to go through the media. Nothing new here - this has been a common goal for all digital campaigns since about 2008.
The only ad with a bit of a message (more a brand/vibe really) is a short video, with fast cuts, a focus on "priorities" and Sunak "working day and night to deliver them". Sunak wants to be seen as energetic, across all the key issues and managing each of them towards success. Again, the goal of the video is for people to like his page, but it at least serves some dual purpose, in trying to get his personal brand across.
3. Does it show us who the key voters are?
These are Facebook ads. As you might expect for a party that tends to find most of its support among older voters, there’s not much effort here to reach the youngest ones (in fact, many of the ads are explicitly targeted at voters over 25). That said, they are being shown primarily to those between 25 and 45, and of those, mostly men.
Beyond that, there’s not much to see. None of the ads are geographically targeted at any constituencies or postcodes. A handful are even reaching Northern Ireland, where the Tories won’t stand any candidates, which seems a little wasteful. In due course, the party will want to focus its efforts on reaching the (many) seats it might need to hold to stay in government, as well as those (few) it thinks it can win. At that point, the election strategy - the “who we need to target”, the “what we want to say to them” and the “how much we're prepared to invest to do it” - will be revealed. No sign of that yet.
Why is he using Facebook, but not YouTube or Twitter?
You can still reach a lot of people and build a following on Facebook, which is what Sunak is doing. Once you have these people in your orbit, it's relatively easier to push them towards other channels (email, clicking links, watching videos, signing up to volunteer, donating). It's not a perfect option, but there's none better for him at this stage of the campaign.
On the other hand, you can't really do any of this on YouTube, without making lots of video. When the time is right, the parties will buy a lot of YouTube ads, but this will be in the more ‘broadcast’ phase of the campaign, in the final weeks.
By contrast lots of political types are on Twitter, but most voters aren't. Buying ads can get you in front of those people, but it's not going to result in many votes, one way or the other. Plus you have to hand over money to Elon Musk. (Reminder: TikTok doesn't accept political ads, nor does LinkedIn, and everywhere else is too small to bother with).
4. Does it mean Labour and the other opposition parties should start to worry?
Labour probably won't be too concerned at this point. They're likely to also have plenty of money ready to spend on campaigning (along with their 15-20 point lead in the polls). That Sunak is reaching people with fairly generic ads, and has increased his Facebook following by 100k in a month isn't a decisive fact in the context of an election with 30 million-ish voters. We expect Labour to get more active over the next few weeks, with their their main pages (the party page and Starmer's) going from hundreds of pounds a day to thousands. In short, there’s nothing to stop Labour doing exactly the same as Sunak and reaching millions of voters with digital ads in the coming months.
For different reasons, the Liberal Democrats also won't be too worried. The list of seats they care about for 2024 is small, and the broad, untargeted nature of Sunak's campaign means that the Tory 'defence' of those seats hasn't really begun. There’s just no point in them trying to compete in a broad, national campaign.
But it could concern Reform a bit. The promised return of Farage with a £10m war chest hasn’t yet materialised, and if an election does now show up in May, that's not a lot of time to get things set up. Plus Sunak likely is reaching people they will want to talk to if they're to actually harm the Tories in the election. At some point soon, election bat-signals like Sunak's ad spending are going to force them to commit.
The other smaller parties - the SNP, the Greens, Plaid Cymru - will be looking on jealously at the amount of money the Tories are able to spend. None of them ever got anywhere near their election spending limits, and there's no reason to believe they'll suddenly find a load more money for their campaigns before the next election. The bar has been raised, and only the big two can hope to clear it.
5. So now what?
This is the first ‘planned’ election year since 2015. The way the campaigns deploy their ad budgets, and the ability to track those in near realtime with transparency tool is a major difference with that first “Facebook election” nearly a decade ago. The key things to look out for are:
Does spending continue at the current level, slow, or speed up (signalling May)?
When will we start to see YouTube ads?
When will we see constituency-by-constituency differences in spending, as the campaigns start to focus on their key seats?
Which issues emerge? How will Sunak try to show success in achieving his priority policy goals? How will Starmer set out the Labour programme more clearly?
How much will be tailored to specific groups of voters, versus being visible to everyone?
Are the issues online different to the ones that play out in the media? (For example, British voters love to get heated about anything to do with animals. The sewage issue just doesn’t seem to go away).
More, as always, as we see it.
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Thanks for reading,
Team Full Disclosure @ Who Targets Me