It turns out Facebook isn’t just the place where your angry uncle goes to vent his irate political opinions and numb out to soft porn; it’s also one of the last viable avenues for pushing political ads on the internet in 2022.
Other major social platforms like Twitter and TikTok have specifically turned their backs on political ads (officially, at least), in part, to avoid dealing with toxic communities ripe with misinformation, but Facebook’s quietly held the line. With the 2022 midterms just weeks away, Facebook, despite scandal after scandal linking its platform to harmful content and political manipulation, and despite declining ad revenues, still remains the only real success story for political advertisers looking to get their message in front of voters’ eyeballs. But even old reliable’s starting to show signs of wear.
That’s the consensus from a dozen ad agencies speaking with Bloomberg this week. Digital strategists from those firms claimed Facebook’s targeted ad apparatus brings in just a fraction of the returns that it did in previous years. That uncomfortable reality is still better than most other alternatives. Actually, according to some strategists, there simply aren’t any alternatives.
“Most of the other platforms won’t take our money,” digital strategist Beth Becker told Bloomberg.
The money Facebook does take, apparently, isn’t going as far as it used to. One expert claimed a dollar spent on political campaign ads on Facebook around a decade ago used to translate to as much as $1.30 in donations whereas now most of those ads barely break even. The experts claimed a big part of Facebook’s advertising slowdown in recent years comes from Apple’s new App Tracking Transparency feature which easily lets users opt out of tracking, a tool seemingly purpose-built to hit Facebook’s business model where it hurts. Facebook claims Apple’s feature will result in $10 billion worth of lost advertising revenues this year. Some of that pain, according to the Bloomberg article, is being passed on to political advertisers.
Worse still, Facebook’s absolute hemorrhaging of younger users leaves the site at risk of losing political relevance in future election cycles. Experts said that the worst-case scenario for Facebook hasn’t happened yet, but its users still aren’t getting any younger.
“I don’t think we’re there yet,” Digital Strategist Beth Becker told Bloomberg of Facebook’s fading political start. “But it’s always something we’re keeping an eye on.”
Facebook wasn’t always the only game in town. Twitter, for example, has for years played an unmistakable role in shaping the living breathing, 24/7 cacophony that’s come to define digital age politics. There’s still, of course, no shortage of political pundits and glorified snake oil salesmen shooting their shot on the platform (Pew estimates as many as one-third of all U.S. Tweets are political), however, the social site actually hasn’t permitted paid political ads since then CEO Jack Dorsey banned them in 2019. In his decision, Dorsey said the power to buy political advertising on platforms, “brings significant risks to politics, where it can be used to influence votes to affect the lives of millions.”
YouTube, by contrast, with its estimated 214 million U.S. users in 2020 does allow political advertising but has put in place stricter limits on how advertisers can target those ads than Facebook, according to the Bloomberg report. Specifically, back in 2019 YouTube parent Alphabet announced it would no longer let political campaigns micro-target individuals with ads based on their personal attributes YouTube’s older brothers over Google have also shown a willingness to abruptly turn off political ads in politically uncertain moments, as they did in the weeks following the January 6 Capitol Hill attacks. Amazon-owned streaming platform Twitch, meanwhile, says it prohibits the promotion of political candidates or political parties full stop.
Facebook political advertising also looks different than it did in the wild west years leading up to Donald Trump’s election and the devastating Cambridge Analytica scandal. During the 2020 presidential election, Facebook experimented with limiting political advertising in the final days before the election in an effort to avoid contributing to potentially election-swaying misinformation. Though not everyone agreed with that decision, Facebook viewed it as a success, so much so that it plans to put in place similar restrictions in the week prior to the 2022 midterms.
Possibly more important than those short-term bans though were policy changes introduced last year that would ban advertisers from targeting users with political ads based on the political, religious, or health-related content they viewed on Facebook. Those changes bring Facebook closer in line with Google, though as The Washington Post notes, the platform still lets advisers engage in many strategies some would reasonably call “microtargeting.” The strategists speaking with Bloomberg said even these incremental steps from Facebook, ostensibly aimed at earnestly trying to prevent Facebook from eating an election manipulation shit sandwich, are simultaneously making their political ads less effective.
“They definitely over the years have taken away our ability to target political ads,” GMMB Senior Vice President Erica Monteith told Bloomberg.
Some political advertisers are reportedly turning to less predictable delivery routes in light of Facebook’s apparent sinking ship. Jon Adams, the founder and CEO of GOP-aligned TAG Strategies, told Bloomberg that advancements in SMS tech have made it possible, and more appealing to send lengthy campaign videos via text. The Federal Trade Commission also recently voted to approve a new pilot program from Google that would essentially exempt political campaign ads from being flagged by spam filters. That program is expected to result in an increase in noxious spam campaign emails, particularly those of the ALL CAPS and Republican variety. Presumably, that change could net a few more campaign contributions here and there. That’s all fine but, at least for now, those efforts still represent peanuts compared to what Facebook can currently.
It’s easy to overstate the impact Facebook, or any social media company actually has on elections. This year, according to AdImpact data, political campaigns are expected to drop a record $9.7 billion on election advertising. Only 15 percent (or $1.44 billion) of that number is expected to come from digital advertising. Campaigns are expected to spread nearly three times as much on old-school broadcasts. There’s also a growing body of research challenging prior assumptions and calling into question the overall efficacy of digital ads.