As presidential candidates spend big on advertising, only a few invest in Snapchat

Political ads on Snapchat. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; screengrabs via Snapchat)
Political ads on Snapchat. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; screengrabs via Snapchat)

WASHINGTON — In early December, a select group of teens and young adults in South Carolina would have been greeted by a new friend on Snapchat, the popular messaging app: a dimly lit photo of Pete Buttigieg, his notable crisp white collar barely inching into view. Positioned under his face was an anonymous quote about the then-South Bend, Ind., mayor, praising his quest to root out racism.

The graphic was part of his presidential campaign’s targeted South Carolina ad buy: $3,293 for ads targeted at eight area codes running throughout the month of December.

But not all app users received the advertising golden ticket. The campaign targeted teens age 17 and up who were “urban & hip-hop music fans” as well as viewers of the Black Entertainment Television network (BET), according to data made public by Snap, the parent company of Snapchat. The ad buy in the critical early state suggests Buttigieg is targeting younger black voters, a demographic that the campaign has floundered with thus far.

Buttigieg’s ad buy on Snapchat may sound modest, but it’s still bigger than some of his competitors’: His was one of only five Democratic campaigns to buy Snapchat ads in the first place. It also underscores the way some campaigns are experimenting with new social media platforms, where there’s little empirical data to demonstrate effectiveness.

Screengrabs via SnapChat
Screengrabs via Snapchat

“In a crowded primary, these campaigns are eager to find voters wherever they can get them, particularly in these segments of the electorate. Snapchat is a great platform to reach young voters and young voters of color,” said Kyle Tharp, spokesman of progressive nonprofit Acronym, which specializes in analysis of digital ad spending. “It would make sense they want to invest in Snapchat.”

Compared to the money flowing into television ads — Michael Bloomberg alone is spending over $53 million on airtime — the dollars going into social media are still small. But candidates are clearly thinking about how and where to focus their efforts, and looking at new platforms is clearly part of that. In the last presidential election, Hillary Clinton focused on traditional television ad spending, while the Trump campaign made deep investments in digital advertising, putting four times as much money into ads that would populate on Facebook, Google and other platforms than Trump’s Democratic rival did, aiding in his eventual competitive advantage.

As interest in advertising on social media expands, a number of candidates appear to be moving into Snapchat, which is popular among younger people. According to a Pew study, more than three-quarters of young adults in the U.S. age 18 to 24 are Snapchat users. Another survey shows nearly 80 percent of black, non-Hispanic teens and 64 percent of Hispanic teens are active Snapchat users.

Snap has made every global political advertising purchase on its app public in a searchable database called the political ads library. Yahoo News reviewed the 2019 data and found a modest playing field: The campaigns of Buttigieg, Joe Biden, Bloomberg, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Sen. Bernie Sanders and President Trump were the only ones buying ads on the app.

The overall breakdown looks like this: Since April, Warren bought the most ads — 147 — with only nine specifically targeted toward early states. There, users 18 years old and up who happened to be “green living enthusiasts, collegiates, and advocates” would be greeted with videos of Warren running in her trademark cardigan asking users to join the fight to cancel student loan debt, promising to challenge the National Rifle Association, etc., all issues top-of-mind for Generation Z voters.

Buttigieg’s campaign began its ad buys a little later, starting in September, and eventually purchased 72 ads for $59,906 — 38 of those running in Iowa and 26 in New Hampshire targeting “collegiates, green living enthusiasts, political news watcher, and tv viewers (news).” A green-living enthusiast over 18 years old in New Hampshire in September, for example, would be greeted with a video of the former mayor saying “climate change is not theoretical.” Months later, a hip-hop-loving teen would get an ad with Buttigieg discussing how his faith informs his policies dealing with racial inequality.

Both Warren and Buttigieg made concerted efforts to target young African-American voters, with Warren focusing on ads about criminal justice and gun control at Southern historically black colleges and universities, and Buttigieg focusing a series of ads on reparations.

Trump’s campaign — which took early advantage of Snapchat during the 2016 cycle — bought 15 ads since July. None were aimed toward an early state, and only one was aimed toward a specific, though unsurprising, demographic: Fox News viewers over 18 years old. Those users would simply see a black Trump supporter wearing a Trump 2020 hat. Other ads encouraged users to swipe up to find MAGA rallies in their area or inquired if the users supported Trump in a sponsored poll. Trump’s Snap buys were unique compared to competitors’ because they targeted users over 35 — older than the average Snapchat user.

A Trump campaign official told Yahoo News, “The campaign’s approach to digital advertising is similar to high-frequency trading on Wall Street, constantly buying and selling to see which ads bring the most value. We test different ad variations on numerous platforms to see what performs the best. While Democrats are locked in a primary fight only talking to their base, we are talking to voters of varied interests across the country.”

Screengrabs via SnapChat
Screengrabs via Snapchat

Former Vice President Biden bought only four ads over six months totaling $1,675, with one targeted to Iowa and another aimed at users over 17. Two of the ads featured a filter where users could impose Biden’s trademark aviator sunglasses over their selfies, one thanked guests for going to the Iowa steak fry, and the last featured a message from a 10-year-old girl talking to Biden about the threats of climate change.

The smallest purchase was from Sanders’s campaign, which spent a mere $361 on an ad that ran in early June of a young woman of color who “stood with Bernie.” It was a surprisingly sparse presence from a candidate who boasts support from young Democratic voters at especially high margins.

While much smaller than his other major ad buys, former New York City Mayor Bloomberg spent $122,108 on Snapchat at the end of December: Two ads ran in several Super Tuesday states. His ad buy on Snapchat may have been just a fraction of his spending on television, but it was nonetheless more than any other candidate spent on the social media platform.

But not all advertising spending is equal. One $29,215 purchase by the Trump campaign — a simple “do you approve of President Trump” graphic aimed at all users over 18 — received nearly 22 million impressions, or the number of users who saw the ad. The second and third ads with the highest impressions were purchased by Bloomberg, with about 20 million and 9 million impressions, respectively. This combined reach for just two ads towers above the reach from all of Buttigieg’s ads, which combined at about 17 million users. Which, well, makes sense when you look at how much money those top two candidates have in their war chests.

Such a phenomenon might potentially turn off other candidates lacking the money to invest in a risky social media strategy. Why spend a little money and time to run a strategic ad campaign when, in the eleventh hour, a billionaire could outspend and outreach you tenfold?

But Tharp argues it’s not fear of being outspent by billionaires that is keeping candidates away. Rather, it’s the conventional thinking that young voters are an unreliable part of the electorate.

He also suggested that Warren and Buttigieg’s spending is far more intentional.

“It seemed like the Bloomberg team just wanted to dump a bunch of money because they had a lot of money to spend,” said Tharp. “There’s not a lot of nuance to the strategy: Throw money, and see if they can get a quick ROI.”

Still, during a time when Twitter and Spotify have announced they will no longer run political ads, Snapchat might be one of the only clear avenues where campaigns can microtarget their advertisements toward young people and see results.

Based on Acronym’s own advertising spending, Tharp said that Snapchat ads are a “cheaper way to reach wider audiences than Facebook and Instagram ads.” Plus, users might trust ads on Snapchat more since the company pledged to fact-check — a promise Facebook is far less clear about.

“I think what we try to do is create a place for political ads on our platform, especially because we reach so many young people and first-time voters we want them to be able to engage with the political conversation,” Snap CEO Evan Spiegel said in November, “but we don’t allow things like misinformation to appear in that advertising.”

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