Convinces political advertising

The digital campaign industry

Samuel Corum / Getty Images

The entire campaign industry is trying to find the magic formula to change a voter's political preference.

Only details distinguish the ads that Donald J. Trump placed en masse on Facebook one day in April. They all consist of an image with text overlaid. A red colored piece of wall, as it could be on the US-American-Mexican border, is the eye-catcher in the center of the picture. In the background a construction site with a row of blue portable toilets. At the top of the picture, the question: "SHOULD WE DEPORT ILLEGALS?" Is enthroned in bold letters, at the bottom the viewer is asked: "HAVE YOUR SAY." This is what one of over 1,000 almost identical ads in the campaign looks like. With another, the image section is smaller, the text a little different: "ANSWER NOW" is now at the bottom.

The Trump team distributed around 30,000 different ads, some of which only differ in tiny details, as part of various campaigns on Facebook in April 2020 alone. Most of them only reach a few hundred target people, but anyone who searches for them can find them in Facebook's advertising library, where the company has publicly listed all political advertisements since 2018. Donald J. Trump's campaign team has spent almost 38 million US dollars on election advertising on his Facebook page alone in the past two years (May 2018 - May 2020). This corresponds roughly to the amount that a company like Google in Germany spends on online advertising each year.

The main reason for the amount of this sum is that important helpers in the environment of the US president are convinced that the 2016 election was won not least through social media. With a view to the 2020 election, the Trump campaign continues unchecked where it picked up four years earlier. Its countless, almost congruent displays with the red wall demonstrate the massive use of a tool that can make all the difference again: microtargeting.

Jaap Arriens / NurPhoto / Getty Images

Important people around US President Donald Trump are convinced that the 2016 election was won not least through social media.

Gary Wright is an expert on digital advertising campaigns. With a small team from the Berlin-based non-governmental organization Tactical Technology Collective, he is researching which political actors use which types of data and how their various methods work. Wright's team has determined that no fewer than 300 companies are now involved in the digital election campaign in the United States.


Microtargeting is a marketing strategy with the help of which personalized messages are played out to special, often very small target groups. Companies that operate microtargeting specialize in collecting and evaluating traces and information that everyone leaves on the Internet, creating profiles, developing and implementing strategies in order to reach their target group in the best possible way.

"The entire industry is trying to figure out the magic formula for changing a voter's political preference," says Wright. “But the staunch supporters of another party are initially not targeted because this is not an efficient use of money,” he explains. Instead, the pros of the Trump campaign are - at least for now - relying on other strategies.

"The better you know and understand your voter, the better you can create messages that evoke reactions or actions of the voters."

"Political digital campaigning grew out of digital marketing," says Wright. "Here the principle applies: the better you know and understand your voters, the better you can create messages that evoke reactions or actions of voters." The focus here is on identifying and mobilizing your own supporters.

The example with the red section of the wall shows how this works best. "Every advertisement on Facebook is in itself a mechanism for data collection," says the social media expert. While the advertisement is automatically displayed in thousands of variants, an algorithm analyzes which text, which color, which image section is most attractive for which user. This contributes to the fact that the ad leads to the desired result with more and more target persons - with the campaign with the red wall it is the participation in a survey that also asks for the e-mail address. The telephone number is also often transmitted. "Once you have the contact information," says Wright, "you can move on and begin automated phone calls and direct SMS contact."

Collecting contact data is worth twice as much. Because if you have received an email address this way, at election events or via newsletters, the mobilization can be increased with the help of Facebook and Google. “Lookalike Audiences” is the name of the tool on Facebook, in German for example: optical twins. Google has a similar tool, Similar Audiences, that works as well.

Lookalike Audiences

This methodology assumes that certain characteristics of Facebook users are an indication of certain interests. When you upload a contact database, Facebook recognizes whether there is a profile for these entries and then uses artificial intelligence to search for similar profiles based on properties that are not visible to the observer. A target group with 30,000 contacts can become 60,000 with one click.

Digital campaign marketing develops its real power when it comes to majority decisions based on the principle of “the winner takes it all”. This was evident in the 2016 Brexit referendum. The Vote Leave campaign, which campaigned for the exit from the EU, spent over 98 percent of its budget on digital advertising, as campaign manager Dominic Cummings revealed in an article for the Spectator. With the money from Vote Leave and other pro-Brexit campaigns, dark ads were also placed.

Dark Ads

Dark ads are ads that - based on the method of microtargeting - are displayed to extremely small target groups. These ads are referred to as "dark" because the content remains invisible to the general public. They are only displayed to certain people, depending, for example, on gender, age, place of residence or interests.

The Correctiv research center has analyzed the ads that Facebook revealed after a long tug-of-war with the British House of Commons in 2018. They show how the political demand for an exit from the EU was adapted to different target groups, and also that false reports were spread in it, including that of Turkey's imminent accession to the EU.

Henry Nicholls / Reuters

The vote-leave campaign, which campaigned for the exit from the EU, spent over 98 percent of its budget on digital advertising.

Jeanette Hofmann is Professor of Internet Policy at the Free University of Berlin, where she and at the Berlin Social Science Center, among others, investigate the tension between democracy and digitization and has worked intensively on microtargeting. “Election campaigns are actually designed to be able to contradict certain promises or statements,” she says. “But if it is no longer possible to critically accompany political advertising because it does not even see the public, then we have a problem. That is harmful, it affects the democratic discourse - especially in times when it matters, because it prepares our voting decision. "

"In our voting system, it can be assumed that the influence of microtargeting is not that great."

In elections based on proportional representation, as is the rule in the EU, the tricks of digital marketing play a much smaller role. Massive mobilization campaigns like those in the US presidential election campaign have not yet been observed here. Dark ads with targeted false information should be a thing of the past thanks to Facebook's public advertising library and other measures. "In our voting system," says Hofmann, "it can be assumed that the influence of microtargeting is not that great."

What makes political scientists in Europe think about addressing voters via social media instead is the effect of algorithms on opinion-forming.

Polarizing Algorithms

Online media such as YouTube use recommendation algorithms that decide which information users prefer to see. This means, for example, that someone who looks at certain content is offered further similar content in order to keep the user on the platform.

"The fact that on YouTube, for example, this means that someone who watches right-wing extremist content is offered even more right-wing extremist content is absolutely detrimental to the development of democracy," says Hofmann. From the point of view of democracy theory, according to the political scientist, it is always about creating a demanding public that forms its opinion and then in turn has an influence on political decisions.

Unofficial and official statements show that the social and political effects of their offerings are increasingly an issue in the social media groups. Facebook's CEO Mark Zuckerberg, in a guest article for the Financial Times in February 2020, wished for more regulation by politics, even if that meant “short-term damage to the company's business”. At the same time, Facebook management defends the foundations of its business model, targeted advertising and the associated instruments. Zuckerberg and his co-managing director Sheryl Sandberg classify the spread of false reports in a political context as a contribution to free social debate.

"I would like us to take money into our hands on a European level and create alternative offers that grow with the involvement of users."

For Jeanette Hofmann, the question arises why Europeans don't cultivate the field of social media themselves. "I would like us to take money into our hands on a European level and create alternative offers," says the researcher, "namely offers that do not make citizens happy from the top down, but that grow with the involvement of users."

In any case, Hofmann pleads, the existing social networks should enter into a dialogue with politics and society. The place for this could be an agency that has yet to be founded, in which platform operators, users and politics openly discuss and work out solutions to improve social media and their principles in the interests of a democratic society.

Zuma Press / action press

It is already clear that the upcoming US election will be influenced by digital advertising even more than all previous elections.

Meanwhile, in the ongoing US election campaign, the social media are being massively upgraded. It is already clear that the upcoming election will be influenced even more by digital advertising than all previous elections. "Due to the corona crisis, there is now a huge push towards digital media," says Gary Wright. In addition, he says, there is also an increasing willingness on all sides to go as far as possible in this election, to pull out all the stops to get the right people to take action, donate and vote.

The Facebook advertising library shows that at least the Trump campaign has already arrived in this mode.

How is digitization changing our lives?

Artificial intelligence, big data and algorithms are increasingly determining our lives. Its effects are ambivalent. It is up to us whether the opportunities or the risks materialize. As a society, we must jointly shape the rules of digitization. You can find some suggestions for this in our dossier on the subject of digitization.