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Road-Testing Facebook’s New Advertising Transparency Features With The Manitoba 2019 Election

Those who know me well know that I’m something of a massive politics geek. It has been a topic of endless fascination to me ever since the age of five, when I watched the results of the second Quebec independence referendum coming in live on CBC, and none of the adults on television (or sitting around me) seemed quite sure of what the country was going to look like the next morning. 

I took so many courses on the subject at University that my three-year Bachelor’s degree wound up being a double-major, and my fascination has not abated in the years since; I can recall staying up past midnight one evening in 2017, just to watch a live feed of the U.S. Senate debate where Sen. John McCain (having been diagnosed with brain cancer just one week prior) returned to the Capitol to cast his decisive vote against the repeal of Obamacare. 

I geek out about politics in much the same way that other people might geek out about sports: it’s not an arena where I’ve ever particularly excelled, or demonstrated any great aptitude (far from it, in fact), but it’s one that I still follow as an observer, intently and with passion. 

If I had any complaints about politics lately (besides, y’know, *gestures broadly at everything*), it would be that there’s just too much happening right now. For political junkies like myself, the past few years have felt like waking up on Super Bowl Sunday, every Sunday, and most other days, and also there’s like five different Super Bowls all happening simultaneously in various countries worldwide. 

There’s probably a better sports metaphor I could have used there, but again: not a sports buff. My point is, no matter how big a fan you might be, at some point it begins to fray the nerves. And I think, as of late, that’s become a fairly common sentiment all around.

“Wait, the Amazon’s still on fire?”

And so, we turn our attention to the Manitoba 2019 general election, which – at time of writing – seems poised to deliver no great surprises, and to largely reaffirm the status quo by delivering another majority government to the provincial Progressive Conservatives, led by Brian Pallister. 

An imperceptibly slight uptick in turnout for advance voting, combined with the realities of a campaign held in late summer, would suggest that voters are equally if not less engaged this time around when compared to the last provincial general election held in 2016 (when voter turnout came in at just over 57 per cent). The Manitoba Poll Tracker (maintained by the CBC’s lead pollster Éric Grenier) currently gives the provincial Tories a 92% probability of winning a second majority, and there are scarce few signals that we’ll see any surprises by the time the final votes have been counted. 

So it was, and so shall it be. But while this provincial election campaign has offered fairly little in terms of political cut-and-thrust, it has been notable in one regard: it is the first general election held in this country since the rollout of Facebook’s new Ad Library feature on June 10th, 2019.

In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Facebook and its platforms started rolling out a host of new “political advertising transparency” features in 2018. The timing of their Canadian rollout was intended to achieve compliance with Bill C-76 in time for the pre-writ period of this year’s federal election. But thanks to the Tories’ decision to drop the writ a year early in Manitoba, our provincial election can now serve as a bit of a “sneak preview” for how Facebook’s new transparency features might impact political advertising and campaign strategy in the federal contest held later this fall. 

In this post, I’ll be discussing a few of the more interesting things one can learn by studying the Ad Library for each of the four main provincial parties in Manitoba: the PCs, NDP, Liberals and Greens. I haven’t set up a Facebook Developer account myself (paging @jacquesmarcoux?), so I can’t access the Ads Library API directly. Still, the data is available for anyone to explore, with or without a Facebook or Instagram account.

For those who might want to check the data out for themselves, here are a few links to the Ad Library results for each of the main provincial parties’ Facebook pages:

PCs Outspend NDP By 7:2 On Facebook, Liberals By 11:2

From the beginning of Ads Library reporting (June 10, 2019) until 8 September, the PCs spent a total of $52,950 on Facebook ads targeted at Manitoba voters. Compare this to the provincial NDP, who managed to rack up $14,918 in Facebook ad spending, or the provincial Liberal party which spent a total of $9,525. The Greens, for their part, ran no political ads on Facebook during this election and thus spent no money, so they will be largely absent from the rest of this discussion.

Timing counts for something here, so it’s worth pointing out that the PCs were earlier out-the-gate with their campaign ads: the Ad Library shows that they were running paid ads on Facebook as early as June 17th, whereas the provincial NDP didn’t advertise on the platform until August 7th (days before the writ was officially dropped on August 13th). The Manitoba Liberal Party had campaign ads up and running on Facebook by June 27th, shortly after the Tories.

It’s also worth mentioning that each party’s ad spend became a lot more evenly matched in the final days of this election: in the seven-day period between September 2nd and September 8th, the Manitoba Grits spent $5,482 on Facebook ads, while the PCs spent $6,888. The Manitoba NDP even managed to outspend the Tories in the final stretch of the campaign, pumping $8,788 into Facebook ads over that same one-week timeframe – roughly sixty percent of their total Facebook ad spend during the 2019 election. 

I’d like to focus on the Dippers for a moment, if I may. Without wishing to get overly technical here, their investment in Facebook ads during this campaign has been what we in the digital strategist profession refer to as “Not Enough Money”. It’s not enough money! Who told them that was enough money?! 

And don’t you even dare come back at me talking about “organic shares”.

Seriously, there are something like a million adults of legal voting age who live in this province, and based on the number of registered voters in the past three elections, you’d expect something like 780,000 of those to be eligible to vote this time around. Facebook, meanwhile, has roughly 730,000 monthly active users over the age of 18 living in Manitoba, according to Ads Manager estimates (and that’s excluding their reach via Instagram, Messenger or the Audience Network).

While those user estimates have been called into question before, there’s no denying that Facebook’s platforms are completely unrivaled in terms of audience reach when it comes to political advertising online. Short of door-to-door canvassing or direct-mail drops, there’s no better way for any party to get their message out to the electorate – plus, online advertising has the potential to be significantly less expensive than either of those options (to say nothing of other advertising channels like television or out-of-house).

For the New Democratic Party of Manitoba to spend an average of less than $300 per day on Facebook ads during the first three weeks of this campaign, while allowing their main rivals to outspend them on the platform by a margin of more than three-to-one overall, does not suggest to me a party with any serious intention of forming government. In fact, they can hardly be said to have shown up for this campaign at all. 

Fifteen grand? Abysmal. Just, abysmal. Yes, I’m angry.

No Young Voters Please, We’re Progressive Conservatives

One of the neat features of the Ad Library is that it offers not only a record of the creatives run by an advertiser (and the approximate budgets for each), but also some insight into the targeting criteria used for delivering those ads. Right now, those details are limited to an audience’s gender, their age cohort, and a broad idea of their location (ie. province). Personally, I’d like to see a bit more detail about an ad’s targeting criteria made public through the Ad Library feature, but it’s a step in the right direction in terms of transparency in digital advertising, at least.

Something I noticed while looking through the Ad Library for the provincial Tories: virtually none of the Facebook advertising they did during this election was ever seen by anyone under the age of 25. In fact, apart from a handful of ads which seem to have run in Northern Manitoba for five days in July (with headlines like “Did you know that Wab Kinew wants to shut down Manitoba’s mining industry?”), I don’t think the Progressive Conservatives spent a thin dime reaching out to Manitobans younger than 25 via their Facebook ad campaigns. 

We can only speculate as to the rationale behind this, but one would imagine that Facebook should be the go-to platform for any party that wants to engage with a broad audience of younger voters. The intentional exclusion of users below the age of 25 from seeing most of their campaign ads probably speaks volumes as to the PC Party’s path to victory in this election, and to their priorities should they form government.

With apologies to A Perfectly Cromulent Election; thanks for helping me make it through another one.

When They Go Low, We… Probably Lose. Again.

Lastly, it’s worth discussing the general content of each party’s Facebook ad creatives, to get a sense of how each party chose to frame their pitch to the voting public. 

The Manitoba Liberals ran 30 separate ads during this campaign, between June 27th and election day. Of these, all but five prominently feature party leader Dougald Lamont, either in close-up or while standing at the podium at a campaign announcement, flanked by party supporters and candidates. The only video content takes the form of “talking-head” shots where Lamont makes his appeal directly to the electorate. Ad copy focuses on the party’s platforms and policies, and largely eschews any mention of the other leaders or parties in the race; the word “Pallister” appears only twice in their ad copy, and “Kinew” doesn’t appear at all.

The Manitoba NDP, for their part, ran about 63 different ad creatives on Facebook during this campaign, starting on August 7th (just before the writ was officially dropped). Unsurprisingly, their Facebook ads largely focused on the party’s main talking-point in this election – healthcare – although there are a few addressing other topics such as childcare and infrastructure investment. Most of the video content is repurposed from the party’s television ad spots (to good effect, I’d imagine).

Also: there. Are. Babies. So many babies. I counted fifteen ads in total where party leader Wab Kinew can be seen playing with small children, or where an infant is prominently in frame. I’d almost say the NDP were overindulging in this particular political cliché, but then… well, let’s get to the Progressive Conservative Party’s messaging on Facebook. 

Hoo boy. Things get ugly here. The PC Party of Manitoba also ran about 63 unique ad creatives (with small variations), matching the total number employed by their chief rivals in this campaign – though they started running campaign ads more than two months earlier, on June 17th. Of those 63, a little less than half feature the exact same (I guess you could call it “unflattering”?) photo of NDP leader Wab Kinew, and I’d say that well over half could be classified as “attack ads”.

While I haven’t dug into the reach/budget estimates for each individual ad, it’s probably safe to say that the provincial Tories succeeded in reaching more Manitoba voters with negative messaging about NDP leader Wab Kinew than the NDP were able to reach with any messaging about any issue via Facebook advertising. The PCs were also able to do so more frequently, and over a longer period of time. Again: Fifteen grand. Pfeh.

Cyril Figgis: political strategist and (highly successful) PC campaign mastermind.

The Progressive Conservatives started this campaign as they meant to go on (or perhaps they had ads running before the Ad Library rollout; it’s hard to say) by leveling personal attacks against the Leader of the Opposition. Over the course of just one five-day span from June 26-30, they pumped somewhere between $2100-$7500 into Facebook ads focused on Kinew’s past assault charges, and allegations of domestic assault. More accurately, the PCs spent between $500-$999 of that amount targeting male voters, and the rest of it was went towards explicitly targeting female voters. 

Although Kinew continues to poll more favourably among women than PC leader Brian Pallister, the PCs have made every effort to dampen enthusiasm among female voters for supporting the NDP this time around. Better analysts than I have already suggested that suburban female voters will play a key role in this election, so we’ll have to wait and see if voting trends among this segment of the electorate have shifted since the last election in 2016.

Looking Ahead to October

I’m sure there are plenty of other insights to be had by studying the Ad Library records of political parties (and third-party advertisers) in the 2019 Manitoba election, but it’s getting close to closing time at the polls, and I’d like to get this post up shortly thereafter. 

It will be interesting to see how Facebook’s new political ad transparency features impact the federal contest starting… oh, figs, that’s tomorrow. Certainly, these features have the potential to make each federal party’s online strategy a bit more dynamic, as each one now has a clearer view of the messaging being deployed by their opponents, and the opportunity to adjust accordingly. 

I also feel that the Ad Library could (and should) be iterated upon to provide even greater transparency into the tactics advertisers use to target their audiences on Facebook. I mentioned earlier that I’d like to see more details about targeting criteria surfaced through the Ad Library; maybe including any of Facebook’s first-party behavioural segments which were used to target a given ad’s delivery, and/or some more granular location data (perhaps the locations an ad was delivered to by city or by postal code, if Facebook doesn’t want to expose the advertiser’s exact geo-targeting criteria). 

Aaaaaand with that, the polls have just closed. My congratulations and condolences to everyone involved, as is deemed appropriate.