A banner year for advertising and a look at differences across platforms

Advertising in the 2020 presidential cycle broke all kinds of records. While the bulk of the spending is still on television, the share of digital advertising continues to grow, and the sheer amount of money spent on digital advertising alone is staggering.

According to the Wesleyan Media Project, Donald Trump’s campaign spent over $201 million (47 percent of his ad budget) on digital advertising between April 9 and October 24, 2020. Though Joe Biden’s campaign focused less on online platforms, it still spent about $116 million on digital, one third of his ad spending. To help put these figures in perspective, Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, which was widely praised for its use of online ads, spent only about $8 million on digital advertising, and Donald Trump spent roughly $83.5 million between July and November in 2016 on digital.

The dominance of Facebook and Google

While Facebook (including Instagram) has been the dominant digital platform for political campaigns, the 2020 presidential campaigns spent almost as much on Google (which includes YouTube). Trump invested about $108 million on Facebook and $93 million on Google while Biden spent $84 million on Facebook ads and $79 million Google ads. By contrast, even though the Biden campaign allocated more than $3.1 million to Snapchat advertising (which compared to only $0.2 million by Trump might have given Biden an advantage in reaching Generation Z voters), the total pales by comparison to spending on the big platforms.

Assessing unique content across platforms

It is widely understood that campaigns use different platforms for different outreach. To examine how the content on each platform differed by campaign, we conducted a preliminary analysis of the textual content of ads on TV, Facebook, Google, YouTube, and Snapchat with a method designed to determine the words that most distinguish one category from another (automated speech-to-text methods were used to transcribe video ads from TV, YouTube, and Snapchat and we collapsed to unique creatives across all sources by campaign).

For Biden, search advertising on Google revolves around appeals to vote, voter registration, deadlines, and voting by mail, including Spanish-language words associated with voting, suggesting a focus on get-out-the-vote and Latinx outreach. Biden’s Facebook ads, by contrast, feature references to Trump, defeating Republicans, and winning combined with donation appeals, which seem designed to stoke partisan identity and out-partisan animosity. In TV ads, substantive content is more prevalent, with references to healthcare, the virus, jobs, and families. Biden’s YouTube ads touch on similar themes, but seem slightly more upbeat, featuring emotive words such as feel, care, and love. Snapchat ads revolve around the Black Lives Matter movement, with references to civil rights, the police, and racism.

Trump’s ads follow a similar pattern. His Google search ads revolve around getting-out-the-vote, but feature more requests for donations than Biden as well as campaign merchandise. His Facebook ads are not quite as focused on his opponent, but still feature attacks against the media, Democrats, and “Sleepy Joe.” Similar to Biden, fundraising appears to be the primary goal on Facebook. TV also provides Trump with room for more substantive content, with references to healthcare, illegal immigrants, taxes, and China. YouTube follows a similar pattern, touching on family, the military, God, and reopening schools.

What to make of it?

The sheer amount of money spent suggests that advertising remains a central way campaigns reach citizens even if ad effects are known to be small and fleeting, and the growing share of digital advertising reinforces the importance of a multimodal approach. Yet the variation in content underscores that digital platforms serve different purposes. Consistent with prior analyses, Facebook content is more partisan while Google’s search advertising seems devoted to get-out-the-vote efforts, which may have been heightened in a pandemic. Both large platforms appear to be used for fundraising, which yields funds for further advertising. Similar to TV, YouTube lends itself to persuasive arguments with more substantive content through audiovisuals – but with the advantages of the digital realm, and Snapchat serves younger audiences.

Electoral success does not necessarily “vindicate” the winner’s strategy. There is much yet to unpack about the 2020 election results and their correspondence with the volume, content and targeting of TV and digital advertising, and the different ways that campaigns deploy their messaging across platforms. The COVID-19 pandemic may have played a role in record spending, as money that might otherwise have gone into events may have been funneled into advertising. Finally, the fact that both campaigns spent almost as much on Google as they did on Facebook is noteworthy and worthy of further exploration.