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The digital campaign: Targeted advertising in the 2019 General Election
Facebook can be used as both a sword and a shield, but parties must choose how they use this powerful tool. Parties can hammer core messages in slightly different ways, using targeted advertising to broadcast key policy areas to voters.
However, they can equally use the tool to deliver a wide array of policy, matching voters to the policies chosen. Targeted advertising is thus dualistic, it gives parties the ability to not only reach out to the party faithful but also to the wider public and floating voters. As such Facebook allows for both broadcast and narrowcast content in the targeted advertisements sent.
Graph 1 — The topics the parties are talking about — leadership, party action and health and social care dominate
Through examining the topics campaigned upon via the unique advert sent by the parties across the first two weeks of the 2019 campaign, we can get the first glimpse of what is going on. Alongside a few core issues there is quite a lot of variety in what is being sent, especially via the major parties. This election, which was already volatile due to a myriad of different factors, thus appears to be wide open given the array of issues being targeted at voters.
For the main parties Brexit is a core topic. However, targeted communications are being used to campaign on a far wider array of issues than just Brexit. Overall, party action (getting people activated to register to vote, make voting plans and organise), leadership and the economy are all important topic avenues for the parties. Although Brexit is featuring a lot, the idea that this election should be called 'The Brexit Election' is wrong as for all the parties except the Brexit Party, as other topics far outweigh Brexit.
The Conservatives and Labour
One may expect the Conservatives to heavily talk about the EU and leadership and you would be right, 62% of the content is via these two forms. This dualistic approach was the core of their 2017 campaign approach, but a new form is seen in party action content. 19% of content seen pushes those viewing the adverts to apply for a postal vote, give donations or get organised. The Conservatives have clearly taken a step from Labour and are pushing other content avenues away from leadership and Brexit, as well as using Facebook as a data and campaign resource. The economy also features (12%), but as seen in 2017 the level of interest in campaigning upon the economy has reduced enormously across all the parties. This reflects how voters are declining in citing it as a major issue at this election (YouGov, 2019).
The Labour Party appears similarly uninterested in mentioning the economy, instead the party is focussing heavily on party action content (36%) alongside health and social care (31%) and Brexit (21%). In 2017 the party ignored the Brexit issue completely, but now is addressing the major issue at the heart of this election via adverts that push the narrative of a second referendum (see example below). Labour are taking a great interest in health and social care with this replacing the more diverse topics used in 2017, Labour are pivoting towards a narrower band of bread and butter policy areas. This may signal a hope to speak to the wider voting public rather than the young and politically engaged.
The Liberal Democrats, Greens and Brexit Party
The Liberal Democrats are focusing heavily on leadership (57%), which is interesting given that they have recently pivoted away from using Jo Swinson after they realised their personalised campaign was not working. The party is also focussed on Brexit (22%), but not to as great a degree as one may expect. This is interesting as it shows the party is trying to widen its policy appeal outside of being a remain party.
The Green Party are the only party to put the environment front and centre (36%), this was also found through a text analysis of the most recent adverts – see this Twitter thread of my research.
The Greens are also interested in talking about the economy (36%) far more than the other parties, again this shift shows the party trying to widen appeal but also how the environment links with other issues.
Finally, the Brexit Party do what they say on the tin, 92% of the adverts are about leaving the EU, there is little nuance in their approach. They are a one message party using as expected one message.
Overall targeted adverts are being used to deliver a wide array of policy areas for the major parties. However, approach remains broad, any evidence of ultra-detailed microtargeting of policy to individual characteristics is not visible. All the parties are using broadcast approaches, with the messages then directed to smaller demographic groups, this in turn has meant that policy remains broad.
This election is so far playing out differently from 2017, and this is visible from the approaches the parties are taking to targeted advertising. The Conservatives appear to have realised that their 2017 campaign was weak, too focused on Theresa May and Brexit. As such they have changed approach, they are being more positive and focused on wider core policy. Labour in contrast are spending huge amounts, with the party less afraid to use Corbyn and finally actually campaigning upon Brexit.
Given the wide differences in approach from 2017, it seems logical that we will be getting a different election outcome on December 13th.
Tristan Hotham is a PhD student at the University of Bath and a member of the Political Studies Association. He studies the use of Facebook as a campaign tool in the UK. He is currently working as a consultant for Who Targets Me, a campaign group pushing for greater transparency in targeted communications. His latest work includes a piece on A/B testing for the Observer, reportage on Boriswave for the New Statesmen and a piece on the varied use of Boris Johnson for the Evening Standard. "Jeremy Corbyn" by Party of European Socialists is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0