Politics

Tens of thousands of dollars, then silence: How some 3rd parties spent big in June

Two prominent third-party groups spent tens of thousands of dollars on political Facebook ads this spring, just before they stopped running advertising to stay inside of new election financing rules. Whether their message will still resonate with voters is another question.

Shaping Canada's Future and Engage Canada spent big on Facebook before cutoff for new election financing rules

Screengrabs are shown from Facebook ads run by Engage Canada, left, and Shaping Canada's Future, right, in June. Both third-party groups spent tens of thousands of dollars on Facebook ads last month — and then stopped spending before the official start of the pre-election period on June 30. (Engage Canada, Shaping Canada's Future/Facebook)

Two prominent third-party advertisers spent tens of thousands of dollars on political Facebook ads this spring — and then stopped running advertising before a new deadline at the end of June would have forced them to register with Elections Canada.

Both Shaping Canada's Future and Engage Canada have now stopped advertising online, and the first group appears to have taken down its website and Facebook page altogether.

Shaping Canada's Future — a group that says it "promotes free enterprise, lower taxes and common-sense regulation" and frequently targets Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau — spent an estimated $188,233 on political advertising on Facebook in June, according to information from Facebook's Ad Library.

The group's Facebook page and website, ShapingCanada.org, both appear to have since been taken down.

Shaping Canada's Future was federally incorporated in early May, with a Douglas Nelson, of Calgary, listed as the sole director.

Douglas Nelson is also the name of the chief financial officer for Alberta Premier Jason Kenney's campaign during his UCP leadership run in 2017. Nelson was also listed as the primary contact for a group called Shaping Alberta's Future.

Attempts to reach Nelson were unsuccessful.

Engage Canada — a group with union ties that has run advertising critical of Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer and that has stated one of their goals is to "stand up to the right-wing political agenda" — spent an estimated $75,552 on ads that ran in June, the Facebook data shows.

The four directors listed on the Engage Canada's corporate registration are:

  • Igor Delov, an executive assistant at the Provincial Building and Construction Trades Council of Ontario.
  • Dave Gene, a former staffer for former Ontario Liberal premier Dalton McGuinty.
  • Peter Kennedy, the former secretary-treasurer of Unifor, Canada's largest private-sector union.
  • Kathleen Monk, the former communications director for former NDP leader Jack Layton and now a principal at Earnscliffe Strategy Group and a regular political commentator on CBC-TV.

"Engage Canada started advertisements in May and stopped advertising at the end of June. Elections Canada doesn't require third-party registration prior to June 30. We chose to advertise in the non-regulated period to ensure our message was seen and heard by as many Canadians as possible," Engage spokesperson Tabitha Bernard said in an email to CBC News.

The group is not advertising currently, Bernard said, but left the door to resuming advertising in the future.

Both groups also ran television ads during the NBA Finals run of the Toronto Raptors in June.

Engage Canada spent $72,552 on Facebook advertising, but all of the ads were removed by Facebook because they ran without a disclaimer. (Screengrab/Facebook)

The fact that both groups have stopped advertising is a sign that the new election finance rules — part of Bill C-76, passed last December — are having an effect on behaviour, says Alex Marland, a political science professor at Memorial University in St. John's.

"If [the new rules] didn't exist, then we'd presumably still be seeing advertising going on in the lead-up to Parliament being dissolved," he said. "So it's changing the behaviour of these external actors, which was presumably the objective of the rules."

The rules also specify that third-party political groups must register with Elections Canada if they spend more than $500 in the pre-election period, which started this year on June 30. Registering means those parties must file financial reports with Elections Canada and are subject to spending limits during the pre-election and election period.

Will voters remember the ads?

While the new election rules seem to be having an effect on the spending patterns of third-party groups, it raises questions about whether voters will indeed remember the messages they've seen on Facebook or during those Raptors' broadcasts when they head to the polls in October.

"The purpose of these ads, to my mind, is they want to start setting the message that you expect the parties will pick up on," said Anna Esselment, an associate professor of political science at the University of Waterloo.

Even though these ads are being placed by third-party groups who are not officially affiliated with political parties, Esselment said she is seeing how it's affecting messaging.

"Even in the last little bit, we hear Justin Trudeau when he talks, he's trying to tie [Andrew Scheer] into Doug Ford — because Doug Ford's not as popular at the moment in Ontario. So the Liberals are hoping to capitalize on that," she said.

"And the Conservatives definitely will want to start pointing out broken promises or what they would consider perhaps a more lacklustre four years than what Canadians had been promised in 2015."

People might forget about the advertising now because it's summer, said Esselment. She also expects voters to be bombarded with advertising and messaging from politicians in the months ahead.

"If you're an undecided voter, it's unlikely that those ads happening in June will actually directly affect how you're going to vote on Oct. 21."

A screenshot of some of the ads that Shaping Canada's Future ran on Facebook during the month of June. Overall, the third-party group spent $188,223 on advertising by the end of June. (Shaping Canada's Future/Facebook)

According to Marland, it's important to look past the dollar amounts spent on advertising when trying to judge future impact and whether it's worth it for groups to invest in Facebook ads.

"The main value is not necessarily just the people you're connecting with, but the ultimate — whether or not you're influencing influencers," he said. "Is what you're saying going to potentially affect the way that the election is covered? Is it going to affect the way people talk about other people?"

And the fact that media attention has been given to political advertising is a big sign the ads are successful, Marland said, because that coverage can further spread the message.

Who saw the ads?

Under the new rules, election advertising requires a disclaimer about who paid for an ad. Ads from both groups ran on Facebook without disclaimers, so they were eventually taken down by the social media platform.

According to Facebook data, the ads from Shaping Canada's Future were shown to Canadian Facebook users between seven and 15.8 million times. Facebook doesn't disclose exact performance numbers for each ad.

It isn't possible to know who the group wanted to target through that advertising, however, Facebook does reveal who saw the ads when they were displayed to users.

People living in Ontario, British Columbia and Manitoba were most likely to see ads from Shaping Canada's Future. Men aged 25 to 34 were also more likely to see ads, when compared to men of other age groups and women of all ages.

The ads from Engage Canada were shown to Canadians somewhere between 2.2 and 4.5 million times.

Ontario and B.C. residents were most likely to be shown the group's ads, and women aged 25-34 were more likely to see them, when compared to women of other age groups.

When it came to men who viewed the Engage Canada content, the distribution among age groups was more even.

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