And Michael Bennet wants to reach people who like Taylor Swift and Lizzo — while avoiding Jason Aldean’s devoted listeners.
Contestants in some of the most well-known midterm races use Facebook and Instagram ad targeting to target messages to voters based on their music tastes, sports fandom, shopping goals and viewing habits, according to a CNN review of data from the social found -Media platforms.
“There are very few things in American culture, whether it’s media organizations, music groups or brands, that don’t have a political connection,” said Samuel Woolley, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin who directs the school’s Propaganda Research Lab. “Political campaigns use this to their advantage.”
With this shift, political strategists say, campaigns are turning to pop culture as a surrogate for politics when trying to reach specific constituencies.
“We still need to do more research and understand who this audience is — what types of music they listen to, what types of TV shows they watch,” said Eric Reif, an executive at the Democrats’ political firm Blue State. That can be commercial data, survey research, or data from Spotify or streaming video platforms, he said.
Overall, Democratic candidates in 20 of the hottest US Senate and gubernatorial elections use Facebook and Instagram ads far more than their opponents, spending more than $4 million on ads on the platforms between mid-August and mid-September, compared to about $645,000 from Republicans.
In the 20 races CNN surveyed for this period, nearly all Democrat campaigns targeted at least some ads to users with specific interests, while fewer Republicans did. Many candidates run hundreds of Facebook ads each month, often with different content, and the data doesn’t show which individual ads are targeting which stakeholders. This makes it difficult to say exactly how campaigns are tailoring their pitches to different constituencies.
But many of the campaigns’ most common targets involve brands that are stereotypical proxies for political leanings: Several Democrats targeted people interested in NPR and whole foods, while NASCAR and Cracker Barrel were popular options for the GOP.
The North Carolina Senate race offers perhaps the greatest contrast in goals. Democratic candidate Cheri Beasley targeted ads to users interested in PBS and the New York Times Book Review, while her GOP opponent, Rep. Ted Budd, targeted Barstool Sports and the Hallmark Channel. Beasley excluded those interested in musician Ted Nugent or podcaster Joe Rogan from seeing some of their ads, while Budd targeted ads to fans of the two men.
A controversial figure popular on the right, Rogan garnered more attention from campaigns targeting Facebook ads than any other topic of interest during the period analyzed by CNN. Nine Democratic campaigns barred those interested in Rogan from receiving some of their ads.
But in an obvious sign of how he’s targeting non-traditional voters, Pennsylvania Democratic Senate nominee Fetterman has taken the opposite approach, targeting some of his ads specifically to Rogan’s fans. (Beto O’Rourke, the party’s nominee for governor of Texas, also ran some ads targeting people interested in Rogan, along with other ads that excluded them.)
Megan Clasen, a partner at Democratic politics firm Gambit Strategies, said that broadly, interest-based targeting is most effective for candidates trying to reach people who already support them.
“It works really well for a fundraiser or list-building campaign where you’re really trying to appeal to a smaller audience,” said Clasen, who works on several midterm races. “But when we’re trying to persuade voters, we don’t want to exclude too many people and leave votes on the table.”
The targeting data shows a variety of approaches. Rubio, Florida’s senior senator, was one of the GOP’s most active users of interest-based targeting: More than 85% of the Republican’s Facebook ad spend went on ads targeting users interested in a long list of topics, from college Football to deer hunting to Southern Living Magazine.
Some of the ads by Bennet, a Democratic senator representing Colorado, were specifically targeted to voters’ playlists. His campaign targets people interested in Swift, Lizzo, Lady Gaga and Beyoncé, while excluding those interested in country singer Aldean. The Bennet campaign also targeted fans of reggaeton and Latin pop music — as well as broader themes like “Spanish language,” “Mexican culture,” and “Latin American cuisine” — in an apparent offering to Latino voters. (Bennet’s campaign didn’t respond to a question about how the advertising goals compare to the senator’s own musical tastes.)
Other candidates’ goals seemed more head-scratching. Nevada Senator Catherine Cortez Masto’s campaign prevented some of her ads from being shown to people interested in Saturday Night Live or Kate McKinnon, the show’s former cast member. O’Rourke’s ads targeted people with a variety of interests ranging from BirdWatching Magazine to One Direction to “drinking water”.
While Meta doesn’t allow candidates to target users based on their race or ethnicity, they are allowed to target users based on gender, age, and location. Several Democratic candidates including Govs. Nevada’s Steve Sisolak, Wisconsin’s Tony Evers, and Michigan’s Gretchen Whitmer targeted a significant portion of their ads specifically at women.
And Fetterman, who has repeatedly slammed opponent Mehmet Oz for his past residency in New Jersey, used targeting to exclude people in the Garden State from receiving a handful of his ads.
Targeting raises privacy concerns
According to experts, using this type of targeting raises important questions about privacy and user consent. Woolley, the UT Austin researcher, argued that meta should impose even more restrictions on how campaigns can target users.
“People’s data is used without their consent to put them in a box and try to manipulate them into not just buying something, but voting for a certain person or changing their beliefs on a certain issue,” he said Woolley. “People have a legitimate expectation of being able to get involved in certain interests without being willfully targeted by political campaigns.”
Users can change their Facebook settings to disable interest-based targeting for individual topics. But most people probably have no idea that because of their interest in a band or TV show, they see certain political ads, Woolley noted.
And Damon McCoy, a New York University professor who is part of the Cybersecurity for Democracy research group, said that campaigns use interest-based targeting “as a proxy for targeting a specific demographic group that Facebook specifically prohibits,” such as race or ethnicity — essentially a loophole to the platform’s rules.
Meta spokesperson Ashley Settle said in a statement that the company routinely updates and removes targeting options to improve ad experiences and reduce the potential for abuse.
“We want to connect people to the candidates and issues that matter to them, while giving them control over the ads they see,” Settle said. “That’s why we allow people to hide ads from advertisers or choose to see fewer ads about certain topics, like politics.”
The main reason interest-based targeting for political campaigns is successful is because the US is so politically polarized, with many cultural indicators tied to political leanings in ways that might not have been a few decades ago, said experts. Even some of the strategists using social media targeting admit they are concerned about what the tactic says about American culture.
“It’s definitely alarming that people are now so polarized that you can know a lot about someone’s lifestyle just because you’re a Democrat or Republican,” Clasen said.