Online Political Ads: Say Anything

How to defend democracy from online political ads at the touch of a button.

When I went to university a lifetime ago, I remember getting a leaflet from the Liberal Democrats which was pro-marijuana. Not just a little bit pro-legalisation either – it had actually been perforated so it could conveniently be used as roach cards.

I remember this so intensely well as just before I had left home a few days earlier, I had seen a Lib Dems leaflet at my parents’ house (miles away) which was staunchly anti-marijuana.

Being a student and only newly politically interested, needless to say, I was very disappointed in the state of the world.


Vote For Me


Here are some sample disappointment noises I probably made at the time:

  • “Can they really just say whatever they think we want to hear?”
  • “There should be laws against this!”
  • “Don’t they know we’ll talk to each other about this?!”

Of course, they knew, and of course, they didn’t care. There are a ton of excuses any political party can give when confronted with such inconsistencies. From blaming the national party for the leaflet to saying it was the work of over-enthusiastic supporters, any message can easily be disavowed by any politician worth their stones.

It was much worse than I realised though because I was yet to learn that no one even cares. I remember telling my Mum, full of teenage rage, that the Lib Dems stance on marijuana wasn’t so clean-cut as she was being led to believe. To my surprise, she frankly had zero interest in what my local candidate was saying compared to hers. All politics is local, and her personal politician had said something she liked, and that’s all there was to it.


Under-utilising Digital Political Ads

Fast forward a million years, and politicians are now (wisely) pouring tons of money into digital advertising as opposed to print advertising. They are still knocking on as many doors as they can, but they’re less likely to jam a leaflet in your face if they don’t think it’ll be effective.

Due to advances in digital marketing, they’re less likely to shove an online ad in your face either unless they think it’ll be effective. In online advertising however there are no printing costs, so they can make more individually targeted effective messages. It wasn’t always this way though.

In 2012 when former Governor of Massachusetts Mitt Romney ran against President Obama for the US Presidency I was working in the UK office of a company with a huge Ad Network in the USA. I remember talking to my colleagues there who told me of a seven-figure ad budget that had just been dropped on them. We were a huge company but this level of ad campaign was still a big deal, so I was curious for more details.

What level of targeting do they want? How much third-party tracking is there? What KPIs do they have? How much functionality do the ads have?

It wasn’t any of my business so the answers weren’t exactly detailed, but they all came down to this one word: none. The ads were just gifs, they weren’t being tracked, they weren’t going anywhere special, and they did nothing. From what I could tell the Romney campaign was just giving us a lot of money to put his face on our sites. I think there was some geo-targeting with different messaging, but not a lot from what I was told.


Portrait of Mitt Romney by Richard Whitney.

Portrait of Mitt Romney by Richard Whitney.
Remember this guy? For a while, he was all over your computer.


Essentially he was buying digital space for his leaflets. He’s an old dude with a lot of money, so I suppose that made sense to him (again I should make it clear that this information all came second hand so might not be 100% accurate).

To be fair, in 2012 it wasn’t unusual for US clients to advertise in this very basic manner. They were obsessed with geo-targeting but little else.

Mega clients in the UK at the same time were demanding intense tracking and optimising. They wanted to see as much bang for their buck as possible, as the UK market is pretty crowded for online advertising.

In the US there was just that much more space that it was all about advertising at scale. Show your ad to 10x as many people for half as much money, and you’ll probably get reasonable results regardless of your tracking.

Still, after hearing time and again about Obama’s slick digital operation it was a surprise that Romney didn’t have a few digital tricks up his sleeve to counter it. A UK candidate who was that rich (and allowed to spend an unlimited amount) would have had the most annoyingly intense and difficult-to-run campaign of all time.

To be fair to old Mitt, at least he did have the nous to put money in digital at all.


Misrepresenting Digital Political Ads

In the 2016 US Presidential election, the Republican candidate didn’t have the same rookie digital game, or so the prevailing story goes. President Trump used Cambridge Analytica to target ads on Facebook on a scale never before seen in a political campaign. Apparently, they created hundreds of ‘personas’ to target specific messages to. They created a ridiculous amount of ads and targeted the Trump campaign’s marketing budget in an incredibly granular way.

“Do you like fish? Trump likes fish” they would say to people who they already knew definitely liked fish. Stuff like that. Not that exact messaging/targeting combo (probably), but stuff like that.

And so just like the Lib Dems in the 1990s, they supposedly told different types of voters exactly what they wanted to hear. Or didn’t want to hear – negative advertising against Hilary Clinton was reportedly widely used to reduce voter turnout of demographics who were likely to vote for her.

It ostensibly worked too – as there is now a President Trump instead of a President Clinton II.

It didn’t really though, as it never actually happened. Cambridge Analytica has since stated that their revolutionary personality trait profiles didn’t actually yet exist while they were working for Trump. So instead of revolutionising political marketing targeting, they were actually just saying they did a lot of fancy things to make themselves look big.

This, of course, is an exceptionally common trait amongst marketing companies. It’s kind of their whole deal because, well, they’re marketing companies. They market stuff, including themselves.


Garth from Wayne's World talking about advertising


Meanwhile, President Trump won by doing the same thing as every other political candidate of all time. He told enough people things they wanted to hear, that they voted for him. There are many elements involved in his victory of course, but newfangled digital marketing wizardry was not the deciding factor.


Misunderstanding Digital Political Ads

The story that some newfangled digital marketing wizardry won President Trump the election is comforting to those who oppose him, however, so it continues to be told. Marketers I know still marvel at the work that Cambridge Analytica must have put in to make it work.


Of course the outcome I didn’t want happened – there was some digital data wizardry at work.


It’s a much nicer story to tell yourself than acknowledging the actual scale of people who disagree with your worldview.

The mere hint that Cambridge Analytica did some work for the Vote Leave campaign in the Brexit election has similarly given UK voters comfort. But again, it didn’t really happen in any mystical way. They most likely simply used the built-in Facebook targeting options, which are pretty powerful in and of themselves.

[Controversially you can even target on Facebook by race, which is likely the main thing that the Trump campaign did when they were promoting “Hillary is a racist” type ads.]

Cambridge Analytica should be complimented on taking two surprise election results and attaching their name to both so successfully. I’m sure they are raking it in now. The rest of us should be ashamed however for believing this nonsense.


Underestimating Digital Political Ads

Anyone can target pretty specific sets of people online. Facebook has great targeting options, but then, so does basically every ad platform at this point.

And the thing is, everyone knows it. If you look at a website for watches, you’re going to be followed around the internet by ads for watches for a while. Everyone knows it (and hates it), but pretends it’s some sort of wizardry when a political candidate does it. Why?

They’re just people. Their campaign is really just a business selling you stuff. Why don’t we expect them to sell it well?

Part of the problem is probably that politicians are generally pretty old. 40 seems like a child in politics, but online a 40-year-old is likely to be still using Internet Explorer 6 to access their Hotmail account.

“Well, of course, they’ll vote for me. I’ll just get my dear friend Snooty Van Der Snoots marketing machine on the case.”

Another likely reason is that politicians are mostly rich. To generalise way too much: rich people aren’t good at judging success as they don’t have to be successful to succeed in life. So they don’t choose the actual best marketing firms, they just choose the ones which sound the best (or are run by their friends – Steve Bannon was on the board of Cambridge Analytica for example).

On top of this, political parties are a nexus of power-hungry people demanding to be heard, being served by sycophantic power-hungry people demanding to be heard. Like similar industries, this means that they both find it hard to have a singular vision which isn’t tainted by everyone trying to have their say and to have someone who is actually fully responsible for anything. And designing ads by an insular committee can be troublesome (as Pepsi recently found out).

So politicians are generally old, rich and structurally stuck in the mud – of course, their advertising sucks. They also have the cardinal sin in measurable marketing going against them – they are way too interested in short-term results.

Almost any good optimising of marketing takes time – get significant results and only then make changes accordingly. If you demand results too soon, judge a campaign too early, or make changes too often then you are destined for failure.


Well then, what next for Digital Political Ads?

With overly-excited reports claiming anything up to 80% of budgets might be poured into digital ads in upcoming campaigns, expect a deluge of nonsense online.

If you are a swing voter, then political parties will have identified you and will definitely be working to target you. The Conservative party in the UK (allegedly illegally) spent £2,000 per swing voter in 40 key seats in the 2015 elections. If it turns out to be judged not illegal, this trend will definitely continue.

Imagine if that £2,000 per voter was all spent online – those poor undecided voters would probably lose their minds. With ads coming from multiple political parties, local candidates (and overexcitable supporters and lobbyists), their social media feeds, ads on websites and search results would be a painful wasteland of political ads.



And of course, like the Lib Dems of yesteryear, they will tell you what you want to hear. As technology gets better, it will become more and more exactly what you personally want to hear too.


“Do you like low tariffs on cheese, mandatory recycling, free bus passes, unlimited cinema opening hours, restrictions on sunglasses manufacturers, and stringent drug testing on badminton players? Me too! Vote for me.”


It’s going to be intense. It’s going to be awful.


How can you stop the madness?

Political advertising has generally up until now been ephemeral. They’re here, then they’re gone. Forever.

TV ads are rarely stored long-term (although there are some archives). Newspapers and leaflets get recycled. It’s been a super convenient system for people who want to be able to publicly make promises they don’t necessarily intend on keeping.


Hoover presidential ad

President Hoover promised a chicken in every pot (and a car in every garage). 7 months after he was elected the Great Depressions started. True story.
Not every political promise is kept.


Online ads at first glance seem to have the same problem – they appear and are gone before you even notice them. Except now, you literally have a button right in front of you that can keep hold of an ad in perpetuity.

I never thought anyone would say this, but your print screen button might just save us all.

If you take screenshots of any political ads you see online, you can hold people to account. Just make sure you save them with the date attached (and ideally where you were when you saw it). Demographic data is also useful, but as you are you, it’s easy to supply that at a later date.

Do it! Do it every time you see one, and save them in a folder you never delete. It won’t take much room on your computer, and if enough people do it they will become an incorruptible archive of insincere promises.

[I did think about creating a centralised database – but that can have so many problems. One false ad being uploaded, and politicians can forever decry it as fake news. If everyone keeps them separately, there’s less possibility of problems.]


How will this help?

If you see an ad which goes against what you know to be true – a contradictory promise, or something contrary to actual fact – then make a noise about it. If a politician said the opposite of what they said previously, then this archive of ad screenshots can help you prove it.

Unfortunately, right now online political ads are barely regulated. And of course, politicians will be able to shrug off responsibility for any ads as well as they ever could. It is however also easier than ever for you to make a big deal about messages you receive.

Tweet screenshots of ads you have a problem with and tag the politician. Post it on their Facebook wall. Start a Pinterest of deceit. Create a Tumblr of half-truths. Build a Snapchat of… well stupid nonsense, it’s really not the right platform for this.

Social media was kind of intended to empower us as a society, and it still totally can.

Don’t neglect old media either. If it’s a local election, then tell your local paper. Local news is often more interested in this sort of thing than anyone.

Whatever you do, don’t let politicians talk smack without bringing it up wherever you can (also don’t lie, or alter ads, it won’t help anyone).

Hopefully over time together we’ll work out a good way to hold politicians to account over online ads. Until then though, like always, it’s up to each of us individually to hold our representatives to account.

Luckily for us, it’s crazy convenient now too.


Brief Update

Since I wrote this Facebook, Google, and Snapchat (!) have all tried to be much more transparent about the political ads that are running (and Twitter stopped running political ads altogether). They partially did this by making political ads have to be declared as such, and have a real-life named person be behind those ads. However, unsurprisingly those efforts fell short, with Facebook removing all political ads from its public library just before an election in the UK.

I don’t even blame Facebook really. It’s not their job to create laws and regulations – these should come from countries. Until they do, keep screenshotting those political ads!