Data compiled by ad.watch, which comes from Facebook’s own ad library, shows that since July 1 the Liberals have spent $738,715 in advertising on Facebook and Instagram. The total includes the official Liberal party account as well as Trudeau’s personal accounts.
By comparison, Scheer and the Conservative party have spent just $251,303 over the same period — despite having a larger campaign war chest.
“The cadence of the spend might be different, the Liberals might be going heavier early on and the Conservatives saving their money for the latter part of the campaign,” said Dennis Matthews, vice president of Enterprise Canada and a former Conservative advertising strategist.
“But when you look at the Conservative voter coalition and compare it to the Liberal voter coalition, for the Liberals, getting younger voters and millennials … engaged was so key to their 2015 victory, and these are younger people who are cord cutting and don’t watch a ton of traditional TV.”
The rest of Canada’s federal parties have spent comparatively little — and have comparatively little to spend. The NDP has spent $14,039 boosting leader Jagmeet Singh’s personal brand and $66,178 on the party’s Facebook page, while Maxime Bernier’s People’s party has spent $10,397. The Green party and the Bloc Québécois have spent just over $2,000 since July 1.
The Liberals' social advertising buy over the last three months translated into 48 million “impressions” — the number of times their advertisements appeared — on Facebook and Instagram, compared to the Conservatives’ 16.3 million impressions.
Ad.watch was created by Manuel Beltrán and Nayantara Ranganathan, both artists and activists, as a way to keep track of Facebook advertising data in bulk. It compiles data using Facebook’s ad API for 32 countries, including Canada, and their major political parties.
Federal political campaigns are tight-lipped about their advertising strategies — how much they’re spending, who they’re targeting and where they’re placing their ads. But tools like ad.watch and Facebook’s advertising registry are providing a largely unprecedented glimpse behind the curtain.
For instance, the ad.watch data shows parties are running the most ads in Ontario, Canada’s most populous province that’s crucial to forming government. But the Liberals are running almost as many ads targeting Alberta residents, despite most political observers writing off the party’s chances in that province.
Scott Reid, a former adviser to Paul Martin and a principal at Feschuk.Reid, said that parties don’t target advertising at only seats they can win — ad campaigns can also be used to motivate existing voters to volunteer and donate money to the party.
But Reid said the Trudeau Liberals approached the 2015 election with a philosophy of not giving up on any ridings — including those that traditionally voted Conservative or where the Liberals had little chance. Reid suspects Trudeau’s team has a similar strategy in this election.
“That philosophy produced and yielded wins in places where you might be surprised,” Reid said in an interview.
“Even when it didn’t produce outright wins … you actually cultivated local organization, local activists, and local activism in ridings where the party may not have been active for years and years.”
The ad.watch data shows that parties are fairly uniform in who they’re targeting — at least in their digital advertising. The Conservatives targeted all age groups with a similar number of ads, while the Liberals targeted more Canadians between the ages of 25 and 54. Men and women were targeted roughly equally by the two parties.
A spokesperson for the Liberal campaign said the party is launching a new wave of digital advertising focusing on Canadians who have a “personal connection” to the changes the Trudeau government brought in.
“The Liberal Party of Canada is always working hard to reach more Canadians and involve them in our movement — including on Facebook and other online platforms,” wrote Braeden Caley in a statement.
When asked about their party’s ad buys, Conservative spokesperson Simon Jefferies said the party discloses advertising expenses to Elections Canada after the campaign.
It’s not just political parties’ ad campaigns that Canadians can keep tabs on. Facebook Canada recently released data on ad buys from third-party groups and companies for the last three months.
A Star/BuzzFeed News analysis of the top 40 spenders during that time found that union groups have spent $389,961 on political advertising since July 1, when Facebook’s new ad transparency rules kicked in. Most of that, however, was spent by Ontario unions campaigning against Premier Doug Ford’s cuts to the education system.
Unifor, which has been vocal in its opposition to Scheer and the Conservative party, spent $171,937 of that total.
Environmental groups, including Clean Energy Canada and Canada’s Ecofiscal Commission, spent $277,283 on political or social advertising on Facebook since July 1. Right-wing third parties have spent $195,423, including more than $96,000 by Canada Proud.
Of the top 40 spenders in Facebook’s registry, third-party and unions combined for $1.24 million in advertising spending on social or political issues since July 1.
BuzzFeed News and the Toronto Star are investigating the ways in which political parties, third-party pressure groups, foreign powers, and individuals are influencing Canada’s political debate in the run-up to this fall’s federal election. This report was published as part of that collaboration.