Political Ads: How Will Policy Changes Impact Advertisers in the 2020 Election?

Mark zuckerberg and Jack DorseySocial media platforms Twitter, Google and Facebook make changes to how political campaigns run advertising on their social networks for election campaigns. How will this impact advertisers?

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey announced via Twitter in late October that the social app would be banning all political ads. In a time of “fake news” and record spending on advertising by politicians, Twitter says that “While internet advertising is incredibly powerful and very effective for commercial advertisers, that power brings significant risks to politics, where it can be used to influence votes to affect the lives of millions.”

So how will Twitter attempt to secure the gates from political ads? Here are the main changes: 

  • Content that references a candidate, political party, elected or appointed government official, election, referendum, ballot measure, legislation, regulation, directive, or judicial outcome will be barred
  • Keyword and interest targeting may not include terms associated with political content, prohibited advertisers, or political leanings or affiliations (“conservative,” “liberal,” “political elections,” etc.).
  • Geo-targeting is limited to the state, province, or region level and above.
  • Ads with messages on issues such as civil engagement, economy, environment, and social equity will be allowed.

The method by which Twitter will enforce these restrictions and the accuracy of their implementation are yet to be revealed. The line between advocating for or against specific legislation (not allowed) and promoting neutral messages about the economy or the environment (allowed) is quite thin, and it will be a daunting challenge for Twitter to accurately approve or disapprove ads accordingly. The company has acknowledged that they will be venturing into uncharted territory that will involve challenges and mistakes. How they adapt will undoubtedly set a precedent for competitors, which could eventually lead to more considerable implications for advertisers. 

While it is a noble cause to protect users against false or misleading information, the decision to ban all political advertising rather than enforcing stricter monitoring of content is a drastic resolve. Advertising on all platforms is an important way that most consumers receive information. Truthful and informative advertising is a means by which politicians can share their beliefs with voters, just as brands share their offerings with customers via advertising. Just as political TV advertisements must be vetted prior to airing, there are undoubtedly ways that digital ads can also be better monitored and restricted. This would not be a simple task by any means, given the amount of content that would need to be monitored, but neither will be determining what content has political implications, as they will have to do under the political ad ban. Is a fight against all ads the best solution to the issue of fake news?

Google Political Ads

Shortly after Twitter’s radical announcement, Google announced that they would be amending their policies to limit the granularity of targeting for political ads. Google is also aiming to increase the transparency of political ads by providing more detailed political advertising spending reports to include state-level elections as well as federal US elections. Google recognized that “no one can sensibly adjudicate every political claim, counterclaim, and insinuation”, and therefore “expect that the number of political ads on which [they] take action will be very limited—but [they] will continue to do so for clear violations”, (referring to ads making false or misleading claims).

To keep a long story short, users and advertisers alike most likely will not be affected by Google’s new political ad policies, except in extreme cases. 

Facebook Political Ads

Ironically, Facebook has decided to give a “politician’s answer” to how they will be addressing the issue of political advertising moving forward. Prior to the policy updates from Twitter and Google, Facebook declared in October that they would not be monitoring or fact-checking political ads in upcoming elections on the stance of free speech. However, after months of backlash, Facebook released an update on January 9th, recognizing that “this is an issue that has provoked much public discussion — including much criticism of Facebook’s position”. 

Through this well-crafted damage control piece, Facebook directly addressed the controversy over which platform is taking the “right” course of action, saying that “While Twitter has chosen to block political ads and Google has chosen to limit the targeting of political ads, we are choosing to expand transparency and give more controls to people when it comes to political ads.” These new user features will include:

  • More transparent information in the Ad Library, including potential reach of an ad and better search and filtering 
  • Updated capabilities within Ad Preferences, including choosing how advertisers can target oneself in a Custom Audience, and a new control that supposedly allows users to see fewer political ads. 

In an ideal world, giving power to the people regarding their advertising experiences seems like a mutually beneficial solution for all parties. However, the percentage of Facebook users who will know about these tools and how to use them is likely insignificant, so it is unlikely that the average Facebook user will be impacted by these changes. 

Since Facebook has not changed their stance on the targeting and monitoring of political ads, it does not seem that advertisers will see drastic changes. It is possible that audience sizes could shrink as a result of these new user tools, but again this will likely be an insignificant change. 

What U.S. advertisers can expect from Google and Facebook is higher costs for all ads, stemming from increased competition for inventory as the 2020 U.S. Presidential election nears. This could be more drastic than ever since Twitter will no longer be an option for a politician’s digital strategy, and total 2020 political advertising spend is projected to approach a record $10 billion.