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Home / Tech / Donald Trump’s Facebook ads look different from those the Democrats see

Donald Trump’s Facebook ads look different from those the Democrats see

It’s not a secret that Trump has spent more than most Democratic candidates. His campaign has put more than $25 million into Facebook ads since the beginning of last year, two and a half times as much as Democratic frontrunner Bernie Sanders, and more than any other candidate except Michael Bloomberg.

tech Updated: Feb 28, 2020 14:31 IST
Joshua Brustein
Joshua Brustein
Bloomberg
It’s not a secret that Trump has spent more than most Democratic candidates. His campaign has put more than $25 million into Facebook ads since the beginning of last year, two and a half times as much as Democratic frontrunner Bernie Sanders, and more than any other candidate except Michael Bloomberg.
It’s not a secret that Trump has spent more than most Democratic candidates. His campaign has put more than $25 million into Facebook ads since the beginning of last year, two and a half times as much as Democratic frontrunner Bernie Sanders, and more than any other candidate except Michael Bloomberg. (REUTERS)

Donald Trump has run a more aggressive, and often more experimental, social media ad campaign than his Democratic rivals so far in 2020, according to new analysis by the non-profit Tech for Campaigns. The dynamic echoes the campaigns’ strategies in the 2016 election, the group said.

It’s not a secret that Trump has spent more than most Democratic candidates. His campaign has put more than $25 million into Facebook ads since the beginning of last year, two and a half times as much as Democratic frontrunner Bernie Sanders, and more than any other candidate except Michael Bloomberg.

But besides spending more, Trump has also run a greater number of ads than the average Democrat. Together, all of the Democratic candidates ran about 228,000 individual ads on Facebook between May 2018 and January 2020. Trump, meanwhile, ran 286,000 ads, or about 25% more than the entire Democratic field combined—even though he spent less than in aggregate. 

According to Jessica Alter, co-founder of Tech for Campaigns, the Trump campaign’s larger number of ads illustrates that the president has been more experimental in his approach to digital messaging.

Most of Trump’s Facebook ads reached practically nobody, and cost the campaign next to nothing. But taken together, they’ve allowed the candidate to tweak messaging based on the real-time reaction of his online supporters, Alter said.

The thousands of Trump ads often include only slight variations. Over the last week, Trump has run dozens of nearly identical ads on Facebook and Instagram, frequently centered on the same photo of the president wearing a gold tie and grinning in front of a stand of palm trees in silhouette.

The text sometimes touts a drawing to win dinner with the president, and sometimes offers more detailed information about the contest: ‘My team will cover your flight, hotel room, and dinner for you and a guest. We’ll even take a picture together.” There were various approaches to the Caps Lock button. 

For corporations, running lots of different ad variants is standard practice. But political candidates have tended to avoided straying even slightly from their pre-tested messages online. Both Trump and Bloomberg’s strategists “take very much a corporate approach associated with direct marketing,” said Ari Lightman, a professor of digital media and marketing at Carnegie Mellon. “That’s really hard to do in a political landscape where people demand authenticity, factuality, impartiality, those kinds of things.” 

According to Tech for Campaigns’ analysis of Facebook advertising data, Democrats have on average focused more heavily on fundraising—more than 50% of Facebook ads from Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg have directly asked for money.

In contrast, Trump has focused on gathering voter data and testing variations of different messages, which Alter said could prove particularly useful when it comes to persuading voters in the general election. “The benefit they have is that they’re not encumbered by ‘how we do it’ in politics,” Alter said.