3 things we’ve learned about digital ads as FWIW turns three…
Also inside: In #NJGov, Republican outspends Democrat online by 10 to 1
This week marks three years of the FWIW newsletter 😱🍾.
After nearly 150 issues(!), we’ve learned enormous amounts about how campaigns are fought and won online. We’ve watched campaigns rise and fall, seen social media ad bans come and go, and witnessed Mike Bloomberg light a billion dollars on fire. In this week’s FWIW, we’ll break down digital ad spending for the week, and then share three things we’ve learned about political digital ads over the years.
By the numbers
Here were the top 10 political ad spenders on Facebook & Instagram last week:
With online marketing integral to their business models, three right-wing media outlets - PragerU, NewsMax, and The Daily Wire - outspent nearly every other political advertiser on Facebook ads last week. These companies rely heavily on Facebook’s ads platform to acquire potential new customers for their paid partners or convert online followers into paying subscribers. In doing so, they can have political impacts. For example, the Daily Wire is running this ad targeting Virginians, just 11 days out from that state’s competitive elections:
Speaking of Virginia, you should read yesterday’s issue of FWIW Virginia to get the latest rundown of the online race for control of the Commonwealth.
Meanwhile, these were the top political ad spenders on Google platforms last week, including YouTube:
Week after week, New Jersey Republican gubernatorial hopeful Jack Ciattarelli continues to flood YouTube with campaign ads - consistently landing in the top 10 spenders nationwide. While most political watchers dismiss his chances to unseat Gov. Phil Murphy, a poll out this week saw Murphy’s lead shrink to single digits.
At face value, the digital spending deficit in #NJGov is astounding: Ciattarelli has spent $831,200 on Google ads to Murphy’s $20,200. On Facebook over the past 90 days, Ciattarelli spent $292,235 to Murphy’s $81,922. 👀 We know Facebook and Google aren’t everything, but that gap sure is something.
One new advertiser we spotted on Google platforms last week was Save Our Healthcare, Inc. The group is running Halloween-themed ads attacking centrist Senate Democrats over plans in Congress to lower drug prices.
With an opaque name like “Save Our Healthcare Inc” and a YouTube channel that was just created two weeks ago, we’re uncertain of who’s behind this ad campaign. Tweet at or DM us @FWIWnews if you know who it is! Save Our Healthcare is just one of dozens of groups spending to influence the Build Back Better negotiations in Congress. For a full picture of BBB ad spending, click here >>
...and lastly, here are the top ten spenders year-to-date on Snapchat political ads:
3 things we’ve learned about digital ads as FWIW turns three
What defines a political ad is changing
Gone are the days of slickly produced, Morgan Freeman-narrated political video ads blanketing the airwaves or the internet. Well, maybe not quite yet - but the ever-changing internet has transformed the definition of political advertising. Over the past three years, we’ve seen campaigns experiment online with innovative ad strategies to varying degrees of success.
For many Democrats and progressive groups, “boosting” news articles into voters’ Facebook feeds has become a new go-to for sophisticated persuasion campaigns. It’s a tactic that’s becoming increasingly common on the Left - and one not yet employed by many Republican campaigns.
This tactic has also underscored that an ad’s “messenger” carries just as much weight as the message itself. Like in the above recent ads from JB Pritzker, Priorities USA, and Terry McAuliffe, campaigns and PACs have experimented with creating different, neutral “brands” to deliver their ads to voters - in an attempt to make the ads seem less political.
Last fall, the Biden campaign showed us how large-scale paid brand partnerships with sites like Buzzfeed, Tasty, and PopSugar can help reach new audiences, and Mike Bloomberg’s paid partnerships with Instagram meme accounts briefly broke the internet.
Campaigns have long been dominated by old-school television consultants and pollsters. But these examples tell us that more digital strategists who are eager to try new tactics are being given a seat at the table on major campaigns to experiment with reaching voters wherever they are.
It’s not just about Facebook and Google
While we often focus on Facebook, Instagram, Google, and Youtube ads in this newsletter each week, as they often make up a majority of digital advertising budgets, campaigns have more options for online advertising than ever before.
More and more Americans are ditching cable and broadcast TV for streaming platforms on smart TVs and binging their favorite shows on apps like Hulu. As a result, political campaigns are increasingly chasing their voters onto those platforms with creative that’s hyper-targeted and tailored to their screens. Industry experts are predicting that spending on CTV (connected TV) ads will ramp up significantly ahead of next year’s midterm elections.
It’s not just on TV screens, either - on mobile, campaigns continue to spend on platforms like Snapchat to reach audiences of mostly younger voters. Snapchat ads are much, much cheaper than other platforms, and spending on that platform is dominated by Democrats and liberal groups. Here’s how much campaigns and nonprofits have spent on political and issue-related Snapchat ads in recent years:
...and although TikTok has formally banned political ads, influencers and marketplaces that work with influencers are sneaking around the ad ban, taking funds from political campaigns for undisclosed promotional purposes.
Ad transparency has been a game-changer
In May of 2018, Google and Facebook unveiled searchable databases of every political ad running on their platforms. While we’re often critical of these companies’ decisions in the political and policy space, the creation of these political ad archives has had a lasting, positive impact on American politics.
Over the past three years, our team at FWIW has probably used these ad libraries more than anyone else (for real though), and hundreds of hours spent scrolling through them have given us the ability to understand campaigns’ strategy on a granular level. We’ve used these archives to get bad actors banned, hold the platforms themselves accountable, and break news when new campaigns are launched.
Other platforms have sometimes followed Facebook and Google’s lead on transparency. Snapchat has a fantastic ad library that is updated daily. During the waning days of the 2020 election, Roku and Reddit created their own versions for transparency’s sake, but Roku’s contains little valuable data, and Reddit quickly dropped the ball and stopped updating theirs altogether.
As campaigns shift to a more diverse media mix each cycle, we hope and expect that more of these transparency libraries will be created - and that the big ones like Facebook, Google, and Snap continue to make positive improvements.
That’s it for FWIW this week! We want to thank you for being a part of this community - especially those of you who have been with us since the very beginning. If you want us around for the next three years, we hope you’ll consider chipping in and supporting our work.