For Election 2020, Facebook NZ has required any political parties to sign up to its new transparency tool if they want to advertise on its platform.
The social network has hailed its move as a bold new era of openness, while technology commentator Paul Brislen says it merely brings Facebook into compliance with the Electoral Act requirement for all political advertising to be identifiable as such.
In any case, results on its transparency page are broad and not easy to summarise, but Wellington marketing agency Aro Digital has done the hard yards - and filled in a couple of blanks with its own well-informed estimates - to come up with the following league tables for the biggest-spending and most active political parties on Facebook and Facebook-owned Instagram from May 12 to July 27:
Aro Digital principle Tim Dorrian notes that although Labour was the biggest spend, on $92,000, it paused all Facebook activity from June 22.
That was during the week that Coca Cola, Unilever, Starbucks, Levis and other multinationals boycotted the social media giant, saying it had not moved strongly enough against hate content amid the wave of Black Lives Matter protests. Facebook has continued to crack down, including a ban on more than 220 white nationalist groups. So far it has not been enough to mollify complaints. This week, one of Facebook's largest advertisers, Disney, officially joined the boycott after earlier slashing spending.
But Labour campaign manager Hayden Munro said the halt was logistical. Labour was pausing its Facebook activity before it started a new round of spending that could come under the regulated period of ad-spend restrictions (see below).
Meanwhile, while ads are paused, Labour continues to use Facebook as a high-volume channel for its own communications, with leader Jacinda Ardern often also using the platform, and its Instagram subsidiary, for video chats with followers, too.
Greens continue through boycott
The Greens have continued ads on Facebook through the boycott.
The party's communications director Jessica Marsh told the Herald: "The Green Party have long advocated for transparency in political advertising, and were the first party to sign up to Facebook's ad transparency.
"We are powered by people, not big corporate donors like the other parties. We can't afford large television advertising campaigns and use digital advertising to reach voters and talk to them about the big issues like action on poverty and climate change.
"We rely on our digital presence to counteract misinformation spread by the other parties about significant announcements we've made so far this election, especially our Poverty Action Plan."
Marsh did not respond to a followup question on why her party chose Facebook of the various digital options available. Like other parties, the Greens have access to hundreds of thousands in taxpayer funds for online, radio and TV ads (see totals below).
Focus of each party's Facebook ads
One of Labour's highest-rotate Facebook ads is, "Want to be kept in the loop with the latest Government updates? Subscribe for email updates below".
"It's very interesting seeing Labour taking a lead-generation strategy - optimising their ads to build a bigger email list," Dorrian says.
"This is a pretty smart strategy, as it means you can communicate with followers long term, rather than just paying for ads".
Labour's other most-frequent ads on the social network are:
• "We're focused on jobs: creating new jobs, helping people to get the skills they need for the jobs we have, and protecting people's existing jobs. Watch to find out more about our plan to respond, recover and rebuild in the face of Covid-19, and sign up below to make sure you get the latest email updates from Jacinda and the team."
• "We believe that putting people at the heart of everything we do is the only way to run a Government and we want to make sure we can keep doing that after September 2020"; and
• "Will you pledge to back Labour this election so we can rebuild together and get New Zealand moving?"
"Overall, Labour's ad setup is very sophisticated. While National's is a little lack-lustre," Dorrian says at this early point in the campaign.
"National's held back on advertising a little bit, seemingly waiting for things to settle before pushing messaging too hard," Dorrian says. "They've only spent an estimate $10,900 more than Act."
In terms of messaging, this has been mostly focused on their infrastructure package, the Aro Digital principal says.
"As of today, National only has one ad active - promoting Judith Collins and its infrastructure plan." (Below).
"Green Party ads appear to be highly policy-driven, potentially looking to determine what is resonating the most with New Zealanders," Dorrian says.
"Core themes have been around their Poverty and Clean Energy Plans. Their slogan appears to be 'Think ahead, act now'."
The party has run many different ads, but each with limited frequency, keeping its spending to a modest $6500 so far. "It seems the Greens are testing out which messaging is resonating best with their audience. They're splitting spend across a heap of different ads," Dorrian says.
"The Opportunities Party has the most active Facebook ads running at the moment - 21 in total - that are mostly geared towards their countrywide roadshow. Their slogan appears to be 'Don't leave change to chance'."
Act has spent most of its Facebook budget on video-based ads, Dorrian says.
"It appears they've been trying to bring in a younger demographic, particularly with the announcement of their deputy leader Brooke van Velden recently. They've also increased their social following by 4000 over the past six weeks."
Political party spending limits
Spending limits apply to political parties from Friday June 19 to midnight Friday September 18 (the eve of the election).
Each party can spend up to $1.17 million of its own funds, plus $27,500 for every electorate where it stands a candidate (there are 72 electorates for the 2020-23 Parliament, which means a potential total spend of $1.98m at the electorate level).
Unregistered outside groups who want to try to influence the race can spend up to $13,200; those who register with the Electoral Commission up to $330,000.
On top of what they raise and spend off their own bat, the Crown allocates each party a set amount of funds for TV, radio and internet advertising around the 2020 election.
National - the largest party in terms of MPs in Parliament - has a $1.29m allocation, Labour $1.20m, the Greens and NZ First $311,000 apiece and Act $145,000 (see minor party allocations here).