In professional golf tournaments, the Saturday third round is referred to as “moving day,” when the leaders separate themselves from the pack for the stretch run. We are in a similar stage of the federal election, with the Liberals and Conservatives effectively tied in most national polls as all parties seek to gain momentum that will carry them through to election day.
While the debates are the main opportunity for the leaders to shine, the parties are also upping their advertising game in an effort to influence public opinion.
Following updates to the Canada Elections Act in 2018, online platforms must make all partisan and issue advertising accessible in an online registry in order to promote greater transparency in an era of online misinformation. While Google/YouTube and Twitter have declined to create an online registry, effectively banning election advertising on their platforms, Facebook has a registry that allows us to look at all of the ads the parties are running.
Given that more Canadians get their news from Facebook than any other social media platform, it is a key component of their advertising strategy. In addition to displaying advertising content, Facebook’s ad registry shows the total spend on advertising over the past week, ranks the ads by the largest number of impressions, and breaks down who saw the ad by age, gender and province.
By looking at the top active ads for the three main parties, we can gain real insight into who the parties are targeting – and with what message.
It should be noted that although the Liberals are spending the most on Facebook advertising during this period, there are other platforms that make up the total digital ad buy for the other parties. For example, the Conservatives are advertising heavily on Instagram and the NDP know how to effectively utilize TikTok
The Liberals spent $766,895 on Facebook ads over the past week (September 1-September 7) – as much as the Conservatives and NDP combined. Here are some of their top ads:
“Don’t let them take Canada backward”: Several versions of this attack ad are currently the largest Facebook spend for the Liberals, playing off Erin O’Toole’s leadership campaign tagline, “Take back Canada.” The ads use clips of Mr. O’Toole’s past statements or newspaper headlines to paint a negative picture of Conservative policies on the wedge issues of firearms, two-tier health care, mandatory vaccines and reproductive rights. The highest rotation version of this ad is 100% focussed on Ontario, while other versions skew towards Ontario (61%), followed by BC (16%) and Nova Scotia (10%). This ad is targeted at young men and older women, who could be Liberal-Conservative swing voters, with the goal of creating doubt about Mr. O’Toole.
“Climate comparison”: In the top four of current Liberal Facebook ads, this piece is targeted 100% at Ontario, and is likely focussed on Liberal-NDP swing voters who care about climate change. This recognizes the NDP’s strength in the province, where they are directly competing with the Liberals for votes, especially in the GTHA. This ad is notable, as the Liberals typically do not campaign directly against the NDP, but Justin Trudeau has ramped up his attacks in recent days on the NDP climate plan, citing third-party experts.
“In Canada, we have each other’s backs”: The highest rotation ad for the Liberals until recently, this positive piece emphasizes their main achievements, namely reducing childhood poverty, renegotiating NAFTA, banning assault weapons, implementing progressive environmental policies, and securing COVID-19 vaccines. It also emphasizes new platform promises including $10/day daycare and housing affordability. This ad is weighted relatively equally among age, gender and provincial populations outside of Quebec (Ontario 42%, BC 24%, Alberta 13%), which leads us to believe that it is targeted at Liberal leaning voters to shore up their support.
“L’Equipe”: The Liberals’ top ad in Quebec features the Quebec team of ministers, MPs and new candidates. They took this approach last campaign as well, which indicates either that Trudeau’s brand in his home province may not be as popular as elsewhere, or that his team has a higher local profile.
The Conservatives’ Facebook ad library shows that they have spent $412,108 in the past week on Facebook ads, and are slowly ramping up their spend.
“Canada’s Recovery Plan”: The top Conservative ad in rotation is a 15-second quick hit of O’Toole on the move talking about the top points of his platform. This ad is focussed on the positive message that O’Toole has communicated early in the campaign, emphasizing economic growth, new jobs, anti-corruption laws, mental health care, and balancing the budget. It is spread fairly evenly across the largest English speaking provinces (35% in Ontario, 20% in Alberta, 15% in BC), with separate ad buys targeting men or women, and is likely geared towards cementing the support of Conservative leaning voters.
“We can’t afford more of the same”: The Conservatives are running a couple of attack ads with this tagline. The first ad is focussed on the high level of national debt racked up by the Trudeau government, making a connection with the rising cost of everyday goods including eggs, chicken and butter. The second ad addresses the Liberal record on taxation, highlighting the fact that they imposed sales tax on Netflix, increased the carbon price, and suggesting that they might tax home sales.
This ad is weighted towards younger voters, with a greater emphasis on Ontario at 52%, followed by 16% in BC and 10% in Alberta. This is likely targeted at Liberal-Conservative swing voters.
“There’s only one way to stop Trudeau”: This is a contrast ad that portrays Trudeau in a negative light before featuring positive clips of O’Toole. This ad is interesting because it is heavily weighted towards male voters in Alberta (27%) and Ontario (25%), followed by BC, Manitoba and Nova Scotia at 13% each. This ad appears to be targeted at the Conservative base, in order to shore up the anti-Trudeau vote which might otherwise stay at home on election day, or migrate to other less mainstream parties
The NDP have spent $319,586 over the past week on Facebook, and for a time earlier in the campaign were outspending the Conservatives, with many different ads primarily attacking the Liberals.
“Delivering pharmacare”: The NDP’s top ad in terms of most impressions criticizes both the Liberals and Conservatives for failing to deliver on national pharmacare in government. This is likely their sharpest argument against the Liberals in particular, who are seeking to match them on most other progressive policies. By including the Conservatives in the ad, it makes the case that regardless of which leading party forms government, only the NDP will promote this priority. This ad is targeted at young voters who would be more likely to benefit from pharmacare, and is focussed on Ontario (45%), followed by BC (28%) and Saskatchewan (18%).
“Vote early”: This is a smart ad by the NDP, targeted 100% at young women, with a heavy spend in Ontario (39%) and BC (33%) followed by Saskatchewan (13%). This ad seeks to lock in the NDP’s lead among young female voters by asking them to vote early – before they are swayed by the Liberals’ inevitable strategic voting pitch at the end of the campaign.
This is just a sample of the political ads that Canadians are seeing on their Facebook feeds. These ads vary from the heavy rotation versions featured here, which are running across the country, to micro-targeted local ads that may only feature in a specific region. As Canadians spend more time looking at their smartphones and less time watching TV commercials or consuming mainstream media, digital advertising is only growing in importance. While many factors will feed into the final result on election night, digital strategy should not be overlooked as an important tool for influencing key voter demographics.
Insights by Sheamus Murphy, Partner, Federal Practice Lead.
Sheamus has over 15 years of experience in government, communications and public affairs, including on Parliament Hill, at Queen’s Park and in the private sector. Before joining Counsel, he was Acting Vice-President, Corporate Affairs and Communications at Shoppers Drug Mart. At Queen’s Park, Sheamus served as Director of Communications to the Minister of Health and Long-term Care and in senior roles with the Attorney General and Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities.