How Facebook is pulling back the curtain on Ontario PC leadership campaign ads

As the Ontario PC Leadership candidates try to convince supporters to buy last-minute party memberships, new changes at Facebook let us see how they're trying to tailor their messages to different audiences.

Facebook’s new changes provide new insights into where the candidates are going after votes

Doug Ford ad posted on his Fordnation page, targeting voters in Northern Ontario.

Doug Ford's bid to become leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservatives hasn't yet taken him to northern Ontario, but when it comes to his campaign's Facebook advertising campaign, he's definitely reaching out to that part of the province.

"A strong north means a strong Ontario. Are you with me?" beckons one of several ads his campaign is placing on the social network.

Other Ford ads promise to "clean up the mess" or encourage supporters to buy party memberships before the sales deadline expires.

"If you could predict the results of the leadership race solely by the sophistication of the online campaign, Doug Ford would be the clear winner," said Erin Jacobson, the head of digital at the Toronto ad agency Cohn & Wolfe.

"He's running a strategically smart campaign."

Facebook lets advertisers restrict who can see messages based on everything from age, interests or where they live.

In Ford's case, his campaign may be targeting potential supporters in northern ridings, zeroing in on people who say they support the Ontario PCs, or who may have even been fans of his late brother Rob Ford.

Unless you're in one of the target groups, you may never see the ads — until now.

The Ontario PC leadership race is one of the first major political campaigns to take place under a new transparency initiative currently being tested by Facebook in Canada.

The feature allows anyone to view all of the advertisements currently being placed by a candidate's Fan Page, whether or not you are the intended target for the ad.

Facebook plans to expand the program to the United States in time for the November midterm elections.

In a post announcing the intiative back in October, Facebook's VP of ads, Rob Goldman, wrote: "During this initial test, we will only show active ads. However, when we expand to the U.S. we plan to begin building an archive of federal-election related ads so that we can show both current and historical federal-election related ads."

Clicking on the ad section on Christine Elliott's campaign page shows the various ads her campaign is placing daily.

A Facebook ad from the Christine Elliott campaign marking Canadian Agriculture Day. (Facebook)

Facebook doesn't provided details of how well any of them are performing, or who the target audience may be, but there are clues in the types of ads being purchased.

On Feb. 13, Elliott appeared to be reaching out to rural voters with a message commemorating Canadian Agriculture Day.

By Feb. 14, that ad was no longer running.

The precise nature of online advertising is what makes it so valuable to parties and candidates, especially during leadership campaigns, says Tamara Small, an associate professor of political science at the University of Guelph.

"If you are getting that granular, then you are able to reach partisans."

Jacobson, of ad agency Cohn & Wolfe, agrees.

"It means that you're not wasting time trying to persuade the unpersuadable. You're being very specific with your advertising dollars, and messages."

It also lets campaigns experiment, as they try to identify the most effective type of message.

Caroline Mulroney's campaign is running multiple versions of an ad dealing with her plan to bring beer and wine to corner stores.

A variation of an ad favouring expanded liquor sales in corner stores.

The image stays the same in each ad, but in one she says she's in favour of the idea, while another asks supporters whether they think sales should expand.

A second variation of an ad favouring expanded liquor sales in corner stores.

All three leaders are running multiple versions of an ad.

Jacobson says it allows the campaigns to test the reaction to different ideas based on how well they perform.

"They have a ton of minor variables that show how they are tweaking their message to the different audiences they are looking to engage with and reach."