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Digital ad spending is a glimpse of where parties are focusing their resources. (Image: Archi Banal)

PoliticsOctober 20, 2023

Who spent most on online ads this election?

a black background with dollar signs and the logos of meta and google
Digital ad spending is a glimpse of where parties are focusing their resources. (Image: Archi Banal)

Data released by Meta and Google tells us which parties, candidates and lobby groups were shelling out to show up in your feeds.

Chlöe Swarbrick spent at least $10,700 on digital advertising during her winning campaign to remain MP for Auckland Central, data from Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, shows. That’s more than double the spend of her closest rival, National’s Mahesh Muralhadir. 

That’s just one of the telling data points accessible in Meta’s Ad Library, which allows anyone to see how much money was spent on political advertising during the 2023 election campaign period. The tool offers a sense of what different parties prioritise and who has the most money (Act). 

Facebook and Instagram’s ad targeting is ultra-specific – you can choose to show ads only to  particular age groups and genders, people who have shown interest in topics like “the environment” or “live music” through previous social media activity, and to target specific  postcodes. Selling its massive audience to advertisers is the main way that Meta makes money – and that includes from political advertisers. 

As part of a push for transparency over concerns of foreign influence in elections, both Meta and Google now release information about political ads on their platforms. Through Facebook’s Ad Library and Google Ad Transparency, it’s possible to search for particular advertisers and see which demographics and areas they are targeting and how much money they’re spending. 

It’s immediately clear that Act outspends all the other parties, with $334,900 of Meta advertising going to 844 separate ads on Facebook and Instagram. For a smaller party, that amount of money is particularly significant – Act spent 33% more than the second-biggest spender, Labour, and had 11 MPs elected to Labour’s 34. 

Some parties spent more money on their leaders' personal Facebook pages than others. While Act forked out $17,800 on promoting David Seymour’s Facebook page, and National spent $43,000 on Christopher Luxon’s, the Greens spent nothing on Marama Davidson or James Shaw’s personal pages, and nor did Labour on Chris Hipkins’. Debbie Ngarewa-Packer and Rawiri Waititi spent just under $3,000 combined, Winston Peters spent $1,500 and Raf Manji spent $438. 

It's worth noting that there are a number of limitations to this data, because it’s not always completely clear how Facebook and Google tag advertising, and there are some limits to how easily the date range can be navigated (Facebook clusters its data in 90-day chunks, which means these numbers will be slightly off). 

More money goes into Meta advertising than Google; only Labour, National, Act and New Zealand First spent enough to show up on Google's transparency dashboard, with Act again spending hundreds of thousands of dollars more than the other parties. The full ad transparency page shows that 90% of this spending was on video content (shown via YouTube), and the biggest day of spending was on 25 September, when the party spent $21,400 on advertising. 

The election advertising period starts three months before the election, when there is a spending cap for all parties advertising. Parties are allowed to spend $1,388,000 for contesting the party vote, plus $32,600 for each electorate candidate – an incentive for even minor parties to run electorate candidates so they can use the maximum amount of money, if they have it. 

Independent electorate candidates are allowed to spend $32,600 too. Third party promoters – the likes of trade and taxpayers’ unions – can spend $391,000, and unregistered promoters can spend $15,700 before they have to register. These costs include paid labour, design, distribution and publication costs, so the amount spent on digital advertising comes from the same pool as that of physical billboards or design agencies. 

Some of the posts New Zealand's political parties paid for on Facebook

While the amount of money spent on digital advertising is only one piece of the overall campaign, it’s an indication of a party’s priorities, and gives a sense of total spending – we won’t know more detail about the amount spent until next year, when parties are required to file expense returns for all advertising spending during the election period (third party promoters only need to file if they spent more than $100,000 during the campaign). Registered political parties also have to file annual returns of how many donations and loans they received, and report the name of every contributor who gives more than $15,000; when these have been submitted for 2023, there will be more information about just how much money each party was working with during the campaign. 

In the meantime, one indication of which electorate seats were being prioritised can be found through the Meta data. Many candidates for electorate seats don’t spend any money on Meta advertising at all, but some do. Because of the hyper-specific geographic targeting, the amounts are much smaller than for the overall party vote, but this only makes differences more significant. While Chloe Swarbrick already has 80,000 followers on Facebook and 117,000 on Instagram, she still spent more than double her closest competitor, National's Mahesh Muralidhar, on promoting her campaign on these platforms – a sign that retaining the Auckland Central seat was really, really important to the Green Party. 

The Facebook data may also be a clue to how the party responded to internal polling – especially because spending more doesn't correlate completely to winning an electorate. In Wellington Central, Labour’s candidate Ibrahim Omer spent more than twice that of the Greens’ Tamatha Paul during campaigning, although Paul had a clear majority at the actual election. Because what Omer spent was much more than most candidates, this could be a sign that internal polling showed the Labour Party that their candidate was on track to lose, so they were willing to invest more resources in the outcome. 

Carlos Cheung, National’s victor in Mount Roskill, spent much more than Michael Wood – this could indicate that while Labour expected previous trends to hold in the seat, National was using more resources to change people’s minds. 

Meta spending paid off for Carlos Cheung and Dan Bidois; Mahesh Muralidhar and Simon O'Connor were outspent by their rivals – and lost

Looking at the spending of third party political actors is also an indication of where resourcing is in New Zealand politics. The biggest spender is Vote For Better NZ, a page that ran advertising against the current government throughout the election period, emphasising the role of party vote. An RNZ story about the third party promoters used Electoral Commission information to find that Vote for Better is run by Tim Barry; in a statement to RNZ he declined to be interviewed or say where his money is coming from, saying that Vote for Better’s data-focused posts could speak for themselves. However, those posts cannot speak for themselves any more – as of yesterday evening, the entire page had been deleted, although a record remains in the Ad Library.

"Vote for Better was a non-partisan, data driven campaign. I wanted to put information on issues that mattered most to New Zealanders in one place so voters could make an informed decision regarding the election. Hundreds of New Zealanders from up and down the country supported the campaign through donations, likes and sharing of the content," Barry told The Spinoff in a statement, not answering questions about how the campaign was funded in any greater detail.

Pages supporting the current government tended to focus only on specific policies, or overall concepts: Leading the Charge is an electric car lobby group that focused on not removing the clean car discount – it also ran a billboard campaign. Save Animals From Exploitation focused on live animal exports, which had been stopped by the Labour government. The NZCTU highlighted the role of Fair Pay Agreements, while activist group ActionStation promoted its Triple the Vote project. Right-wing group Hobson’s Pledge also ran a second page called We Belong Aotearoa, which had more explicit messaging around race. In general, much of this political advertising was focused only on specific policies, like the Clean Car Discount. Many of the third party advertisers, unlike the political parties and candidates, had very few followers on their Facebook and Instagram pages, so needed to pay for advertising to make people see their messages.  

Act may have spent the most on digital advertising, but runner-up is the strictly politically neutral Electoral Commission, which ran 271 advertisements on Google; as these are politically neutral, Google doesn’t display how much was spent. But on Meta, the commission paid $327,800 for advertising that encouraged people to vote. Democracy is accessible to every eligible voter, but reminding people of that does come at a cost. 

This article was updated to include a response from Vote for Better's Tim Barry. 

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