Exclusive:General election party advertising: The £1m Facebook bill as Labour outstrips rivals as Scottish polticial parties wage online campaign battle

Digital ads key part of effort to woo voters but impact of spending is in doubt

Scotland’s main political parties have spent more than £1 million trying to win over voters via Facebook advertising over the past five years, with some upping their use of the social media platform as the UK general election campaign heats up.

In a sign of how data is increasingly shaping the battle to secure the backing of the electorate, the nation’s five main parties have bankrolled more than 8,000 adverts on the social media platform since the end of 2018, with the demographic targeting of several campaigns providing an insight into who they are are trying to reach.

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Scottish Labour spent £411,370, the most by any party, according to an analysis by The Scotsman of a database of political advertising maintained by Meta, Facebook’s parent company. Anas Sarwar’s party has also outstripped its rivals as the race for the general election intensifies, spending thousands of pounds on scores of ads in recent weeks.

While every major party routinely uses Facebook advertising as part of their campaign toolkit, The Scotsman’s analysis marks the first time the extent of the long-term spending can be revealed. In total, the main parties have paid the US tech giant at least £1,020,902 for ads via their main pages, as well as those of serving MPs and MSPs, parliamentary candidates, councillors, and local branches.

Kate Dommett, professor of digital politics at the University of Sheffield, said it was “unsurprising” the parties were investing more online, given “a significant proportion” of campaign spending has moved onto digital advertising over recent elections. But she said the impact of such a strategy was probably “small,” and difficult to track, with increasing sums going towards Google and programmatic advertising.

As well as spending the most, Scottish Labour ran the greatest number of ads – some 4,440. Over half of its outlay – more than £237,000 – went towards over 3,300 ads via the party’s main Facebook page. More than £127,000 was spent on 238 ads via Mr Sarwar’s page.

By comparison, while the Scottish Conservatives ran just 474 Facebook ads, it devoted considerably more to each, spending £297,834. The vast majority – over £260,000 – bought ads via the party’s main page, although it also paid nearly £12,000 for ads from the page of its leader, Douglas Ross.

Political parties across Scotland have run thousands of ads on Facebook as part of their digital campaign efforts. Picture: Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP/GettyPolitical parties across Scotland have run thousands of ads on Facebook as part of their digital campaign efforts. Picture: Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP/Getty
Political parties across Scotland have run thousands of ads on Facebook as part of their digital campaign efforts. Picture: Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP/Getty

The SNP, which has long championed its organic “people powered” online campaigning machine, spent £173,861 on 1,558 ads. Nearly two thirds – £112,666 – went on ads via the party’s main page. Unlike Labour and the Tories, however, it did not run ads via the page of its leader, First Minister Humza Yousaf.

Keith Brown, the SNP’s depute leader, said the party had “run the most effective Facebook ads campaigns on a cost per voter and cost per seat basis,” adding: “Unlike our main political rivals, the SNP’s digital campaigns continue to be powered by our members, who make sure our message reaches voters across Scotland.”

The Scottish Greens spent £71,133 over the period in question – November 29, 2018 to January 20, 2024 – while the Scottish Lib Dems paid £66,804, and Alba £28,544.

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One indication of the increased importance placed by the parties on digital campaigning is that more than half the overall spending – some £540,169 – took place during the 2021 Holyrood campaign, according to Electoral Commission records. However, the final five-year tally is likely to be higher, given The Scotsman’s analysis excludes ads costing less than £100.

Prof Dommett said: “We can see fairly different approaches to online campaigning – the SNP are notable in relying less on paid political advertising than Labour. This in part reflects a tactical decision, but may also be a reflection of the relative budgets available to the two parties.

“There are good reasons for Scottish parties to use digital, especially when they are trying to campaign in large and often rural constituencies where it can be challenging to run a door knocking campaign.”

But she added: “It's really challenging to measure the effects of online political advertising, but emerging evidence suggests that their impact is small. That said, digital is a powerful medium for communicating with voters, and parties that avoid this medium run the risk of their voice being absent from a key platform many voters now use to learn about politics.”

With Prime Minister Rishi Sunak expected to call an election in the second half of 2024, online campaigning has begun in earnest, with Labour and the Tories spending more than £1.4m each at a UK level over the past year on Meta’s platforms. Prof Donnett said the Scottish spending was “in line” with the trends seen at the last general election, when all parties across the UK spent around £7.5m on Facebook and Google ads. That figure is expected to spike this time around after the Tories raised the national election spending cap on political parties to around £35m.

While the expenditure of the Scottish parties pales in comparison to the sums given to Facebook by the UK parties, the data shows the effort to woo voters months before they go to the polls is up and running. Over the 90 days to January 20, Scottish Labour ran 57 ads costing £100 or more, with a total spend of £6,822.

Many have turned to key ballot box issues, with the creative in one campaign vowing that a Labour government “will deliver a new deal for working people across Scotland”. Mr Sarwar’s page has also pushed 25 variations of ads reaching an estimated audience of more than one million people.

Meta’s data shows the party has been targeting specific postcodes across the Central Belt, the majority of which are around Glasgow and Edinburgh. One ad ran a video of Mr Sarwar stressing the coming election represented a chance for Scotland to “lead the way in delivering the change our country so desperately needs”.

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Over the same 90-day period, Scottish Labour also spent up to £1,800 on 23 video ads via Google. The majority were aimed at Central Belt postcodes, with the party also using targeted ads in the Stornoway area. According to Google’s advertising transparency centre database, no other Scottish party has used the platform for political advertising over that timeframe.

A spokeswoman for Scottish Labour said the party was looking to speak to voters “wherever they are”, adding: “We are planning to run the most advanced campaign we have ever run ahead of this general election. Scotland needs change and Scottish Labour is working to show voters that we can deliver that change.”

The Scottish Conservatives spent £500 on seven Facebook ads in the past 90 days, although all were focused on health secretary Michael Matheson in the wake of revelations about his roaming charge bills late last year. The way the party targeted those ads gives some idea of its intended audience, with the vast majority of the sum spent was aimed at Scots aged 40 or over.

The SNP spent even less – just £371 – with all 19 ads run via the Facebook page of its Pentlands West branch. The Scottish Lib Dems spent £669 promoting Angus MacDonald, the party’s candidate for Lochaber, Skye and Wester Ross, while the Scottish Greens paid £149 for 31 ads for Dominic Ashmole, who is seeking to become the MP for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale, and Tweeddale.

James Mitchell, professor of public policy at the University of Edinburgh, said Facebook advertising was “not the only, nor the best” form of campaigning. He explained: “Face-to-face campaigning still trumps all, but that requires activists on the ground. The key takeaway seems to be that Labour is now back in the game, able to spend significant sums on such campaigning.”



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