POLITICAL ADVERTISING REPORT
A Tale of Two Platforms
By BBB National Program's Digital Advertising Accountability Program
Digital political advertising has become a critical—and controversial—component part of the U.S. election cycle. Once subject to the space and time constraints of print, television, and radio, political advertising has exploded into the "wild west" of the digital age, with the total digital ad spend this campaign cycle already doubling what was spent in 2016.1 Across websites and mobile apps, from the walled gardens of social media networks to the mixed content of the open web, candidates, campaigns, and political action committees navigate vast and intersecting networks to get their messages out to activists, funders, and ultimately, the voters.
In the Digital Advertising Accountability Program (DAAP)'s previous Political Advertising Reports, we focused our reporting on the advertising platform, geographic location, type of campaign, and prevalence of ad transparency in line with best practices for online express political advocacy.2
In this third report, we take a deeper dive using publicly available data from Facebook and Google (see Section 2), combined with our own datasets (see Section 3), to examine the digital advertising impact of the top U.S. federal and state political advertisers identified by DAAP during its independent monitoring of the political advertising space. Facebook and Google represent the digital advertising players with the largest market share, capturing a combined 78% of the digital political ad spend, and they also provide transparency reports on their political ad libraries.3
Within Facebook’s data, most political advertisers are targeting women, except for the Trump Make America Great Again Committee, and adults over the age of 55, except for Bernie 2020.
From DAAP's dataset, some political advertisers fall far short of full compliance with advertising transparency best practices. Though many political ads contain notice and "enhanced" notice of their political nature, 9% of advertisers did not appear to provide any kind of notice or enhanced notice.
The biggest difference between the datasets publicly available from Google and Facebook is ad spend transparency and impression data.
- Google provides precise weekly spending data for each campaign, rounded to the nearest $100, compared to Facebook’s broad spending ranges that make a precise estimate somewhat harder to come by. In
contrast, Facebook provides a narrow range of impression data for its ads, whereas Google provides a wide range of impressions that make it difficult to gauge the impact of each Google Ad.
- Further, Facebook provides precise geographic percentage breakdowns for impression data, whereas Google only provides data as to whether an ad was targeted to a location, but not the percentage of impressions attributed to that location.
While advertising overall constitutes approximately 98% of Facebook’s revenue and 70% of Google’s revenue, political ads account for only approximately 1% of each company’s total advertising revenue. Though both companies are digital ad giants, they have different business models, products, and means of reaching users. Facebook is a global social media network with a community of 2.6 billion users, which includes its eponymous platform, Instagram, and WhatsApp. The company has a number of advertising tools that combine data generated through use of its products with data obtained from other sources, including a pixel for websites and a software development kit (SDK) for apps that helps Facebook associate data about its users with their other experiences online.
Further, in June 2020, Facebook stated that it would implement a feature on its platforms that allows people in the United States to opt out of seeing social issue, electoral, or political ads from candidates or political action committees in their Facebook or Instagram feeds. Whether this change will have an impact in overall political ad spend for Facebook remains to be seen.
Google is known for its eponymous each engine, the video sharing platform YouTube, and a powerful display network that delivers ads across two million websites worldwide. Like Facebook, Google has powerful ad tools to reach users with ads tailored to their interests, including pixels for the web and mobile SDKs. Notably, Google also claims that it "[...] never allow[s] granular microtargeting of political ads on [its] platforms [...] " and offers "[...] basic political targeting capabilities to verified advertisers, such as serving ads based on public voter records and general political affiliations (left-leaning, right-leaning, and independent). "4
In sum, Facebook is focused on delivering customized advertising experiences to users of its social media networks, whereas Google is focused on targeting ads to users as they hop from its search engine to the myriad of disparate websites, videos, and apps in their online experience.
We started our analysis with the top 10 advertisers found in our own datasets (see Section 3). Then we used data from Google and Facebook to dig deeper into the advertising habits and tactics of those top ten advertisers to expand our understanding of their reach and impact.
Political Ad Libraries Differences and Limitations
Facebook’s political Ad Library data is accessible via an application programming interface (API). Once retrieved, the data is specific. For each campaign, the data is presented in the form of individual advertisements. Spending and impression data on the advertisement are given as ranges (e.g., a given advertisement might have received between 5,000 - 10,000 impressions and had $100 - $199 spent on it). Each region (generally U.S. states for political ads) and demographic associated with the ad have percentages attached (e.g., 10% of the ad’s impressions were in New York, 40% of the audience were male, and 20% were between the ages of 25 - 34). As the impression and spending ranges are relatively narrow, it is possible to combine them with the location and demographic data to draw conclusions about a campaign’s targeting strategy and advertising budget priorities.
The Google political ads Transparency Report data is comparatively easier to retrieve. An automatically generated set of CSV files, compatible with spreadsheet software, is located on Google’s website and may be downloaded without restriction. The data itself, however, is somewhat less precise. The data is presented in the form of individual advertisements, like Facebook, but are is inconsistent (geographic data such as state names, ZIP codes, congressional districts, and metropolitan areas are freely mixed) and presented without any indication as to what proportion of impressions can be attributed to a given region. The demographic data provided shows the ad’s target demographics (e.g., male, female, unknown, etc.) but again, without any indication of proportional impressions. In addition, impression and spending data is provided in much larger ranges than the corresponding Facebook data (e.g., 10,000 - 100,000 impressions, $100 -$1,000 dollars, etc.). Consequently, it is comparatively less meaningful to draw conclusions about a given campaign, based on its aggregated impression, spending, region, and demographic data.
In one way, however, Google, does provide more clearer information than Facebook. In addition to the data on individual advertisements, Google also provides precise weekly spending data for each campaign, rounded to the nearest $100 (e.g., on the week starting January 19, 2020, the Amy McGrath campaign spent $21,100). Comparatively, the equivalent Facebook data can only be estimated from the provided advertisement and spending data ranges.
About this Report
This series of reports is produced as part of DAAP's political advertising transparency project. In 2018, DAAP, a division of BBB National Programs, was tasked with enforcing the Digital Advertising Alliance (DAA)'s best practices for online express political advocacy2 called the Application of the Self-Regulatory Principles of Transparency & Accountability to Political Advertising (Political Advertising Principles). In pursuit of this mission, DAAP monitors express advocacy political ads across websites, social media, and mobile apps to assess political advertiser3 compliance with those Principles.
DAAP notes that in an effort to assess compliance with the DAA Principles and deepen our understanding of the digital political advertising market, we examined data we generated in the course of our monitoring activities, as well as data provided by major political ad platforms. As a result, we found ourselves with a great deal of data that, while not all specifically applicable to compliance with the DAA Principles, appeared to be of public interest. Therefore, because we had access to this publicly available data, we decided to publish a short analysis of this additional data alongside our usual compliance assessment to illuminate some of the practices of political advertisers in this space. Note that none of this information is meant to express an opinion about any of the candidates, campaigns, or other political advertisers, nor are we opining on the quality, correctness, or adequacy of any platform tools.
2 | Political Ads Data from Google and Facebook
What Facebook's Data Tells Us
Facebook’s political ad library5 includes every active or inactive ad on social issues, elections, or politics that have run on the platform since May 2018. This ad library provides a downloadable ad library API, which allows certain users6 to access data about ads from countries where the ad library is live, including Brazil, Canada, European Union countries, India, Israel, Ukraine, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
Data available from the Facebook Ad Library API include:
- Ad creatives
- Ad performance data, including total amount spent (range)
- Total impressions an ad received (range)
- Demographics: age, gender, and location of users reached (percentage)
- Dates the ad ran
It is important to note that this period of analysis includes Super Tuesday, which led to great variability among the political ad spend of various advertisers. Specifically, for ad spend, there is a big change in the data both where billionaire Mike Bloomberg entered and exited the Democratic presidential race.
The data below is based on estimated impressions.7
Figure 1: Gender Impressions
Except for Bernie 2020 and Trump Make America Great Again, most political advertisements on Facebook skewed heavily toward gaining most of its impressions from women.
Figure 2: Age Impressions
When looking at advertisements based on the age range of users, standouts on Facebook included Bernie 2020 advertisements, which skewed toward users in the 18 - 34 age range, and Jeff Merkley for Oregon advertisements, which were quite the opposite and skewed toward users age 55+. Interestingly, the Biden for President and Trump Make America Great Again advertisers each had a relatively even spread of impressions across all age groups, though the Biden for President data skewed slightly younger.
Figure 3: Estimated Weekly Ad Spend
We were able to estimate weekly ad spend on Facebook for each of our identified political advertisers8 and found that, unsurprisingly, Mike Bloomberg 2020 represents a significant outlier. From January 1 to June to June 5, he spent approximately twice as much as his combined fellow democratic primary candidates from out dataset, a figure which includes Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s continuous spend.
Figure 4: Estimated Weekly Ad Spend (without Mike Bloomberg 2020)
Because of the Bloomberg outlier, we also created the following dataset to show the relative ad spend of the political advertisers excluding Bloomberg. Here we can see more clearly that Biden 2020 had a significant increase in ad spend in the weeks leading up to the Super Tuesday contest, as well as the drop-off of other candidates’ spending following Super Tuesday.
Figure 5: Ad Spend United States Heat Map
To see what ad spending looked like for each state, we overlapped the weekly ad spend data with the number of impressions received in each state.9 We note that Texas, California, and Florida appear to be major foci of this time period’s ad spend.
Figure 6: Top Facebook Advertiser Based on Ad Spend
When we looked at who was spending that money, we found that Mike Bloomberg 2020 and Trump Make America Great Again were two top spenders in many of the states across the country. Biden for President appeared to be a top spender in some of the northeastern states, and Bernie 2020 was a top spender in Iowa—the first state to vote in the Democratic primary contest.
Figure 7: Top Facebook Advertiser Based on Ad Spend (minus Mike Bloomberg 2020)
When you remove the Mike Bloomberg 2020 outlier, the top political ad spend per state across the United States belongs to the Trump Make America Great Again Committee, with Biden for President and Bernie 2020 being top spenders in northeast, west, and parts of the Midwest.
Figure 8: Top Facebook Advertiser Based on Estimated Impressions (minus Mike Bloomberg 2020)
Here, we have the top Facebook political advertisers from our monitoring set based on estimated impression data.
Figure 9: Top Facebook Advertiser Based on Estimated Impressions (minus Mike Bloomberg 2020)
Here, we have the top Facebook political advertisers from our monitoring set based on estimated impression data with Mike Bloomberg 2020 removed.
What Google’s Data Tells Us
Google provides a Political Advertising Transparency Report10 for political advertising that takes place on Google search, YouTube, and Google’s partner properties on the open web. This database includes ads that feature a current officeholder or candidate for an elected federal or state office, federal or state political party, or state ballot measure, initiative, or proposition that qualifies for the ballot in a state.
Data provided in the Google Transparency Report includes:
Precise weekly ad spend for each political advertiser
Number of unique Google Ads per political advertiser
Data on locations where each Google Ad was targeted
Figure 10: Weekly Ad Spend
As with Facebook data, Mike Bloomberg 2020 represents a significant outlier in weekly ad spend compared to other political advertisers, including democratic primary competitors, from January 1 to March 1.
Figure 11: Weekly Ad Spend without Mike Bloomberg 2020
Because of the Bloomberg outlier, here again we created the following dataset to show the relative ad spend of the political advertisers excluding Bloomberg. We note that both Biden for President and Bernie 2020 had a significant increase in ad spend in the weeks leading up to the Super Tuesday contest, which was to be expected, and the Trump Make America Great Again Committee increased its political ad spend significantly in the week of May 17.
Like Facebook, Google provides location data about political ad targeting. While some ads are targeted to the United States generally, other unique ads are targeted to a single state, and some even focused on specific zip codes or metro areas. Using that data, we have identified the political advertisers with the most unique ads per state. We note that these descriptions do not include impression data, which is highly difficult to estimate based on what Google provides. Further, we note that ads targeted to a certain state or region does not preclude them from being viewed elsewhere.11
As the Google dataset does not provide sufficiently precise impression or spending data that can be attributed to specific states, we have instead looked to the number of unique advertisements each campaign targeted to specific states. This approach is not perfect: a few advertisements in the data set are targeted at more than one state, the provided geographic data is inconsistent (as previously described), and campaigns use individual ads differently (e.g., one campaign may place one unique advertisement for a few hours targeting one state, while another may place one unique advertisement for several days targeting multiple states). Nevertheless, we feel that the provided data is adequate to gain a sense of the approaches taken by different campaigns in their geographic targeting in Google ads, and the emphasis each campaign has placed on targeting specific states.
Figure 12: Top Unique Ad Advertisers
Figure 13: Top Unique Ad Advertisers (without Mike Bloomberg 2020)
Once we removed the Mike Bloomberg 2020 outlier from the data, we found a significant number of states where no Google ads were targeted, and that Biden for President focused its targeting efforts on the Midwest and on the coastal states. We also found that Bernie 2020 appeared to target South Carolina, which could reflect his prior effort to defeat Biden in the South Carolina primary.
Figure 14: Top Unique Ad Advertisers, Pre-Super Tuesday
Figure 15: Top Unique Ad Advertisers, Post-Super Tuesday
3 | DAAP Monitoring Data
DAAP monitors websites and mobile apps for express advocacy political advertising, which is advertising for the election or defeat of a specific candidate. For this report, we analyzed 1,071 political ads and their associated political advertisers across the United States from January 1, 2020 - April 20, 2020.
In our dataset, the date range for our total monitoring encompasses the “Super Tuesday” contest on March 3, 2020, which featured a number several state Democratic primary contests. The data includes ads encountered on social media platforms, websites, and search engines. Please note that while many of the following tables add up to our complete set of 1,071 ads, some tables may not if an aspect of an ad unreadable or unknowable.
Table 1: Political Advertisement Platforms
During our monitoring period, we found that more than 50% of political ads were identified on social media platforms, rather than non-social media websites.
Platform of Political Ads
Table 2: State-Specific Political Ads
This table includes ads with a specific state “association,” which means that the ad met at least one of the four following criteria:
The text of the ad explicitly mentioned a state
The candidate was running for statewide office in a specific state
- The ad appeared on a state-specific website (e.g., local news websites)
The ad otherwise appeared to target a specific individual or group in a given state (e.g., targeted advertising)
Table 3: Top 10 Advertisers
This table identifies the top advertisers, or the person or entity that paid for an ad.
Warren for President
Trump Make America Great Again Committee
Mike Bloomberg 2020
Amy McGrath for Senate
Nicole Galloway for Missouri
Biden for President
Jaime Harrison for U.S. Senate
Jeff Merkley for Oregon
Booker for Kentucky
Table 4: “Enhanced Notice” or “Notice” Provided
For the purposes of this document, “enhanced notice” means any indication of an ad’s political nature, such as a link, icon, or combination of words and phrases (e.g. paid for by John Smith for President). “Notice” means any explanation, linked from an enhanced notice, that provides insight into the ad. Of this dataset and the parameters we defined during our monitoring period, approximately nine percent of political ads during this time period did not provide adequate and enhanced notice.
Ads with “enhanced notice” and notice
Ads with “Enhanced notice” but no notice
Ads with “Enhanced notice” but notice unknown
Ads with neither notice nor enhanced notice
Table 5: Use of AdChoices Icon
This icon identifies an ad that is collecting or using interest-based advertising data. AdChoices is a self-regulatory program that encourages online advertising platforms to identify where data is collected and used for interest-based, or behavioral, advertising.
Use of AdChoices Icon
AdChoices Icon provided
AdChoices Icon not provided
We noticed that many political ads deployed the familiar AdChoices icon as its enhanced notice where we would have expected an icon or wording indicating that the ad was political. Further, we note that no ad in our dataset used the purple PoliticalAd icon enhanced notice, which is intended to be the symbol for enhanced notice of express political advertising.
Table 6: Types of Political Advertisers
The chart below indicates the entities responsible for the advertisement. Most ads in our dataset were paid for by the individual campaigns themselves (85%), while 14% were paid for by committees. Six of the ads in our dataset are classified as “unknown” because we were unable to definitively determine which entity paid for the ads.
Table 7: Federal or State Contest
Type of Contest
Table 8: Types of Federal Contests
Type of Contest
Table 9: Types of Statewide Contests
Type of Contest
Table 10: Political Party Affiliation
This table identifies the political party affiliation of the advertiser by locating “Republican” or “Democrat” as part of the advertiser’s name or noting that the candidate is running on a specific party’s ticket. Our results show that 80% of the ads in our dataset were affiliated with the Democratic party, which can likely be attributed to the highly contested Super Tuesday races.
Political Party Affiliation
Table 11: Top Ten “Pro” Ads
This chart identifies the candidates with the greatest number ads advocating for their election.
Table 12: Top “Anti” Ads
This chart shows the candidates with the greatest number of ads advocating for their defeat. Here, we note that some “anti” ads featured more than one candidate.
Joe Biden & Bernie Sanders