Jacinda Ardern's 2020 election victory speech. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

In the final week of election campaigning the Labour Party was spending $24 every minute on Facebook and Google advertising

It was a huge finish. Not only did Labour win by a landslide on election night, it outspent competitors in the last week of campaigning online.

In a seven day period the party spent $112,456 on Facebook ads and $131,400 on Google ads – a total of $243,856 based on figures collated from Google and Facebook.

Breaking that down into minute chunks, it works out at $24 a minute, every minute for seven days. 

In the final week the National Party spent $16.65 per minute, and the Greens around $12.19. ACT spent around $3.03 a minute. The Māori Party – the only other party now likely to make it into Parliament depending on how special votes fall – spent the least of the election night potential winners, $1.05.

New Zealand First, which didn’t reach the five percent threshold needed for a party vote and failed to secure an electorate, spent a frugal 79 cents per minute.

Putting this into context, a person on the adult minimum wage of $18.90 per hour working a 40 hour week earns 7 cents per minute when the weekly wage of $756 is spread out over 24 hours a day.

The last minute pivot

Most of Labour’s messages focused on Jacinda Ardern with a positive, smiling, “Let’s keep moving” message, but in the final day of the campaign a different approach was used, with a clear call to National voters to swap sides. In an election with so many advance votes cast this seemed a strategy to sweep up the undecideds, with budget set aside to make that happen.

The party swapping message was fronted by Grant Robertson in a video advertisement where he said: 

“‘I’m Grant Robertson, Labour’s finance spokesperson. If you’re somebody who values stability and consistency in these uncertain times, and maybe you’ve backed John Key or Bill English before, this is a message for you. There’s too much at stake right now to vote for National. They’re unstable. They’ve had three leaders and four months, 19 resignations, a string of different positions on the border. They published a budget full of mistakes. Whatever they might have been in the past, they’re just not in a fit state to be the government right now.”

Between $14,000 and $16,500 was spent promoting this message in one day and the ads were seen between 795,000 and 975,000 times.

The negative message was a rare break for Labour from what had been a predominately positive campaign. Previously the only attack ads from the party had been run on Google for people searching ‘National tax policy’. These ads called National’s tax policy reckless, irresponsible and desperate and an ad run in the final week of the campaign refuting National’s claim that a vote for Labour meant the Greens’ wealth tax would be introduced.

“National’s last roll of dice | Desperate ‘wealth tax’ lies | Chaos, confusion and lies. Jacinda has promised Greens’ ‘wealth tax’ policy won’t be introduced” 

Party ad strategies

Tim Dorrian, co-founder of Aro Digital, a digital media company that tracked election campaigning, was surprised how little Labour targetedthe  regions, a strategy which didn’t seem to affect the election results. 

“There was very little regional focus, and Labour’s strategy was largely nationwide messaging. Some exceptions were made for specific Christchurch ads towards the end of the election. This seems to have worked well, lending itself to clear and concise messaging throughout the campaign.”

In contrast he said National’s online ad campaign had some very specific regional ads around roads and local hospitals.

“Comparatively, National’s strategy was very regionally focused, leading to a higgledy-piggledy array of different messaging. This may have led voters to be confused about what National’s strategy for the country was. Or perhaps New Zealanders just aren’t that interested in building new roads (which was also a huge focus for the National Facebook campaign).”

After an array of leaders it seemed National had a focus on spending money to promote their third leader in recent times. Some of the ads National put the biggest budgets behind were two video ads, fronted by, or about Judith Collins.

One ad had a message about five ways to address the economic crisis, delivered by Collins, not National’s finance spokesperson Paul Goldsmith. The second was an almost six-minute video advertisement where Collins talked about her life. It’s estimated to have been seen more than a million times.

Dorrian said on top of this: “National also spent ~$30,000 on getting likes for Judith Collins’ Facebook page, which seemed like a desperate attempt to look a little more popular.”

Another notable absence from election campaign was the self-styled ‘bad boys of Brexit’ reported to be working with New Zealand First. The duo of Andy Wigmore and Arron Banks have been pivotal in polarising debate in Britain. 

One advertisement mocking the Green Party surfaced in late July. Based on advertising metrics it might have been hailed a success, with just $500 to $600 spent on Facebook to gain over one million views. The Green Party swiftly hit back, with a re-enactment. 

“After the backlash and reactions to NZ First’s unicorn ad, NZ First started to play things pretty safe. That was the peak of the creativity of the social ads we saw from NZ First, after that things got very boring. Aside from their roadshow, they spent their money on a relatively niche policy – their anti-excise tobacco tax,” said Dorrian.

ACT did well on election night, bringing in a bevy of MPs to join David Seymour. Its ad strategy has been quite different to other parties.

“ACT ran more ads than any other political party – 2,369 ads,” said Dorrian.

More ads didn’t mean more money, the party spent under $200,000 on Facebook and Google ads since mid-July. Their targeting appears to have been more granular than other parties.

“ACT had a balanced mix of concise messaging, while also testing a huge variety of different ads. This approach meant they were able to stay on message, while also see which ads resonated with audiences best. Over time, they focused their spend on the ads that performed the best, and made more ads similar to this. This seemed to be a relatively effective strategy.”

A large number of ads were were targeted to regions promoting the bus tour where people could meet candidates in person.

The last cash dash – even from minor parties

The final week of campaigning saw all the parties spend-up online regardless of size. New Zealand First, a modest spender throughout the campaign spent nearly $8000. Advance – New Zealand Public Party also spent on Facebook – $32,650, only to have their Facebook page deactivated on the Thursday before the Saturday voting cut-off.

Adding all that up, you could conclude Facebook and Google are the clear election winners, sharing $61.72 per minute from political parties in their last week of campaigning.

Throw advertising from the Electoral Commission and various interest groups promoting the referendum into the mix and that number would be higher. In total, since mid-July the four top polling parties have spend more that $1.7 million on the two platforms.

What’s the mix?

In a world where television doesn’t capture the audience it once did, the numbers published by Facebook and Google give a glimpse of how the election advertising landscape is shifting. 

Looking at the month-long spending window from September 13, where parties are allowed to spend money on broadcast advertising, including online advertising, gives a very rough idea of the proportion of money spent on online ads compared to other mediums.

Parties are only allowed to advertise on television and radio using the broadcast allocation. They may also use the allocation for online advertising if they wish. Additional funds can also be used for online advertising. It’s likely this is the case for the Green Party, which exceeded its broadcast allocation just in online ad spending. 

Aro Digital is a Wellington-based digital marketing agency that provides data-driven solutions and results. In the lead up to the 2020 Election, Aro Digital launched its Election Insights & Digital Transparency Report, in an effort to give all Kiwis information about how social media is being utilised in politics. 

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