MarketingData-Driven MarketingAmericans Say No to Popular Political Facebook Ad Targeting

Americans Say No to Popular Political Facebook Ad Targeting

Data-driven targeting that's commonplace for political campaigns is rejected by voting-aged Americans, says an Annenberg study.

Several political tech and data firms on the right, left, and in between are introducing new ways to target digital ads to voters this election season. And, while there are no signs of political campaigns slowing their use of online interaction and social media profile data to inform which ads they deliver to which types of voters, lots of people who might receive those ads say they don’t want them.

A new study from the Annenberg School for Communications found that 85 percent of Americans surveyed would be “angry” if they discovered Facebook was serving ads for political candidates based on their profile information. Political advertisers commonly do just that, targeting Facebook ads to people who like certain political organizations or candidates or express other interests that might align with a candidate’s stance on an issue. Corporate brands do this, too.


Facebook Sponsored Stories ads for political candidates elicit an even higher level of disdain. Seventy percent of people studied said they would be less likely – 50 percent “a lot” less likely – if they found out a campaign targeted ads to friends of people who like a candidate. The Sponsored Stories ad format offered by Facebook allows for this exact scenario. For instance, if someone’s Facebook friend likes Mitt Romney on Facebook, that someone is likely to see a Sponsored Story for Mitt Romney that displays the fact that the friend liked the candidate. Other ad formats from Facebook similarly show that a friend has liked a candidate or brand.

Eighty-six percent of Americans surveyed said they don’t want political campaigns to customize messages based on their interests. Again, this has become a de facto approach to the way political advertisers use online advertising, particularly on Facebook. If a Facebook user, for example, shows an interest in gay rights issues by liking related organizations, chances are he might have been served an Obama for America Facebook ad in 2011 with a message focused on marriage equality: “President Obama supports repealing the Defense of Marriage Act. Add your support now!” stated a Facebook ad from the President’s reelection campaign that appeared to be targeted to people who liked left-leaning groups on Facebook, including gay rights-related groups.

Many political campaigns including Obama’s and Romney’s also target ads to people across the web through ad networks if they have previously visited their official campaign sites. This simple form of behavioral targeting is called retargeting.

In recent months, several firms serving political advertisers have touted new data partnerships enabling them to refine online ads targeting voters. Romney’s online ad firm Targeted Victory partnered with Hispanic data firm Pulpo Media to reach the key voting group through tailored video ad messages. Targeted Victory, a Republican digital consulting company, has spent the last four years building up its own data, creating online voter segments for targeted online ad campaigns.

Just yesterday online ad firm Intermarkets revealed its partnership with Lotame, a company that works closely with Targeted Victory, to build online ad audience segments to target based on data from veteran political data firm Aristotle. And today, a data and tech firm on the Democratic side, NGP VAN, enhanced its platform allowing candidate campaigns to connect Facebook data to NGP’s voter file to help find Facebook friends who are registered to vote and are likely supporters of the candidate. That online organizing platform is not intended for use for ad targeting, however.

Obama’s campaign and its online ad firm, Bully Pulpit Interactive are also known for their data-driven online ad targeting prowess.

The negative reactions to ad targeting are much more pronounced when it comes to political ads than product ads, discounts, or tailored news. According to Annenberg, 61 percent said they don’t want ads for products or services that are customized to their interests, and 46 percent said the same of tailored discounts. Sixty-one percent said they do not want news customized to their interests.

A majority of survey participants – 64 percent – also said they’d be less likely to vote for a candidate they support if they determined that the candidate’s campaign buys data that helps them target tailored ad messages to different people.

The study of around 1,500 Internet users in the U.S. age 18 or older was conducted between April 23 and May 6 by Princeton Survey Research Associates International.

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