Where you eat, shop, and enjoy may determine the political ads you see on social media
Democrats exclude people who eat at Cracker Barrel, a Southern country-themed restaurant chain. Republicans are filtering voters who shop at Whole Foods Market, a supermarket chain focused on natural and organic foods.
These are two examples of how political campaigns use people’s dining, shopping, and entertainment preferences in hopes of reaching an online audience more receptive to their political message, according to an Axios analysis of political advertising data at Meta, owner of Facebook and Instagram.
Axios says it analyzed more than 93,000 targeted entries for paid political ads on Facebook and Instagram.
It found that Democrats were more likely to target fans than National Public Radio, a publicly and privately funded nonprofit media organization with the stated goal of creating a more informed audience; Spanish language outlets such as Univision; and people with a general interest in journalism. By contrast, Republicans were less likely to target potential voters based on their media preferences.
The GOP was likely to focus on fans of the reality TV show “Duck Dynasty,” which is about a family that makes products for duck hunters and is known for its long beards and conservative evangelical Christian views. Republicans have also targeted fans of famous country singers and Southern celebrity chef Paula Deen. Democrats focused more on fans of Lady Gaga and genres such as salsa and hip-hop.
In addition to Whole Foods, Republicans have also rejected people who shop at Trader Joe’s, a grocery chain known for unique, eclectic offerings at affordable prices, choosing instead to target fans of Chick-fil-A, a popular fast-food restaurant whose chief executive officer has made remarks opposing same-sex marriage. In the past.
“We actually used to be more specific and be able to target people by race or partisanship, and so all of that was left out, so now those interest targets are just a proxy for what was done previously,” says Megan Claassen, digital marketing consultant. who worked on both the presidential campaigns of Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton.
“It takes more risk when you’re running a persuasion campaign. When you make assumptions about how people’s interests influence their political opinions, you might leave out people who are likely to be with you, just because they shop certain places or watch a certain show.”
Digital marketers had to get more creative with targeting last year, after public outcry prompted Meta to stop allowing advertisers to target their ads using factors like people’s race, sexual orientation, and political or religious opinions.
“Facebook had tons and tons of data about people’s preferences and likes. So if people like Republican pages or if they like Democrat pages, if they like Republican politicians, if they like Democratic politicians, if they subscribe to pro-life. [anti-abortion] groups, or if they subscribe to groups associated with pro-choice [pro-abortion rights]or the Second Amendment [gun rights], or anti-tax groups,” says Tyler Brown, former director of digital strategy at the Republican National Committee (RNC). “So, Facebook has also become a provider of what we call third-party data. And the value for advertisers was that it was very powerful and inclusive.”
Without this valuable metadata, political activists focused on consumer preferences to reach specific parts of the electorate. While Republicans targeted people who shop at stores that sell outdoor gear, Democrats focused on fans of the Nordstrom luxury department store chain. Lululemon, a high-end sports brand; and Zara, a retailer of inexpensive trendy clothing.
While the two major political parties often seem to target different Americans, there were some commonalities. For example, both targeted Walmart shoppers.
Clasen believes in creating a wider net when it comes to digital marketing.
“A lot of times, when we’re trying to persuade people, we’re kind of talking to people who land in the middle — maybe they don’t really identify as being too liberal or too conservative,” she says. “So, I think we have to be careful about using these kinds of inclusions or exclusions in our targeting when we’re trying to persuade broader groups of voters.”
Republicans were more likely than Democrats to focus on sports fans, including anglers and people who follow NASCAR auto racing. Democrats tend to exclude deer hunters and auto racing enthusiasts from seeing their digital ads.
“They’re trying to be more targeted than running blanket ads, but there’s some risk that they’re missing people in the gaps,” Brown says. NASCAR has a huge fan base. It is very likely that many Democrats are NASCAR supporters, but [digital ad consultants] They are trying to bet that, in general, they are targeting more of their supporters. They assume that this is a better targeting method than just targeting a geographic area.”
This kind of targeting can sow division online, Brown and Clasen say, especially with Facebook’s algorithm already filtering posts so people see content they’re most likely to interact with.
“Obviously, this is already creating a lot of polarization in social media environments,” says Klassen. “So it’s kind of contributing to that ongoing effect, if people are only seeing things that they’re likely to actually agree with versus seeing different opinions that they’re not used to being exposed to.”
Brown says the politicization of brands is also increasing polarization in American society.
“I think we’re seeing a cultural divide, in terms of, not just the media we consume, but the brands we choose to support,” Brown says. “The reason the American democracy experiment has been so successful for so long, is that while people may have different political preferences, they operate from the same shared sense of values and worldview…and I think that because these people segregate themselves into different camps, Even those values, worlds and viewpoints are being questioned and being undermined.”
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