Marco Rubio hopes to sway voters interested in Chick-fil-A, Ram Trucks and Duck Dynasty. John Fetterman is looking for fans of microbreweries, Teslas and Dave Matthews Band.
And Michael Bennett wants to reach people who love Taylor Swift and Lizzo — while shunning Jason Aldean’s loyal listeners.
Candidates in some of the most popular mid-term races are using Facebook and Instagram ads that target messages to voters based on their music tastes, sports habits, shopping destinations and TV habits, according to a CNN review of data from social media platforms.
Data, which started the parent company Meta of Facebook make it public In recent months, he’s been offering a sneak peek at how political campaigns are slicing up and slicing up online voter groups based on very specific interests. It is a sign that as America grows more politically polarized, candidates are using cultural icons as agents of politics.
“There are very few things in American culture, whether it’s media organizations, music groups, or brands, that don’t have some kind of political connection,” said Samuel Woolley, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin who directs the school’s Propaganda Research Laboratory. “Political campaigns are using this to their advantage.”
This tactic is made possible by a service that Meta calls “detailed targeting.” It allows political campaigns and other advertisers to show their ads to people who share certain interests, or to ensure that ads are not shown to people interested in certain topics. Facebook determines whether a user is interested in a topic based on the ads they click and the pages they interact with, according to it company.
It has long been a routine practice for political campaigns to use this interest-based targeting of Facebook ads. But starting earlier this year, Meta prevented Advertisers from targeting users based on their interests in social issues, causes or political figures, saying that removes the options for “subjects that people might consider sensitive.” The change eliminated the ability to target ads to people concerned about climate change or Second Amendment rights, former Presidents Barack Obama or Donald Trump, for example.
In the wake of this change, political strategists say, campaigns have turned to popular culture as an alternative to politics when trying to reach certain groups of voters.
said Eric Reeve, executive director of the political firm Democratic Blue Case. This could include commercial data, survey research, data from Spotify or streaming video platforms, he said.
Overall, Democratic candidates in 20 of the most competitive US Senate and gubernatorial races use Facebook and Instagram ads far more than their opponents, spending more than $4 million to advertise on platforms between mid-August and mid-September, compared to about $645,000. by the Republicans.
In the 20 races that CNN reviewed for that time period, nearly all Democratic campaigns targeted at least some ads for users with specific interests, while fewer targeted Republicans. Many candidates run hundreds of Facebook ads each month, often with different content, and the data does not show individual ads targeted to interest groups. This makes it difficult to determine exactly how campaigns are adapting their offerings to different groups of voters.
But many of the most common campaign targets involve brands that are stereotypical stances for political leanings: Many Democrats targeted people interested in NPR and Whole Foods, while NASCAR and Cracker Barrel were popular choices for the Republican Party.
The North Carolina Senate race presents perhaps the biggest contradiction in goals. Democratic candidate Cheri Beasley targeted users interested in PBS and the New York Times Book Review, while her Republican opponent, Ted Budd, targeted Barstool Sports and Hallmark Channel. Paisley has excluded those interested in musician Ted Nugent or podcaster Joe Rogan from seeing some of her ads, while podcast ads have been specifically targeted at fans of the two men.
Rogan, a controversial figure who is popular on the right, has drawn more attention from campaigns targeting Facebook ads than any other topic in the period analyzed by CNN. Nine Democratic campaigns excluded Brogan’s interests from receiving some of their ads.
But in an apparent sign of how he has reached unconventional voters, Fetterman, the Democratic candidate for the Pennsylvania Senate, took the opposite approach, specifically targeting some of her ads at Rogan’s fans. (Beto O’Rourke, the party’s candidate for governor of Texas, ran some ads targeting people interested in Rogan, along with others that excluded them.)
Megan Clasen, partner at Democratic political firm Gambit Strategies, said broader interest-based targeting is more effective for candidates trying to reach the people who already support them.
“It works really well for a fundraising campaign or list building, where you really try to focus on a smaller audience,” said Klassen, who works on multiple midterm races. “But when we’re trying to convince voters, we don’t want to exclude a lot of people and leave votes on the table.”
Targeting data shows a variety of approaches. Rubio, the first senator from Florida, has been one of the GOP’s most active users of interest-based targeting: More than 85% of Republican spending on Facebook ads was for ads targeting users interested in a long list of topics, from college football to deer hunting for Southern Living magazine.
Some of the ads from Bennett, the Democratic senator representing Colorado, were particularly consistent with voter playlists. His campaign targeted people interested in Swift, Lizzo, Lady Gaga and Beyoncé, while excluding those interested in country singer Aldean. Bennet’s campaign also targeted fans of reggaeton and Latin pop music – as well as general themes such as “Spanish language”, “Mexico culture” and “Latin American cuisine” – in an apparent bid for Latin voters. (Bennett’s campaign did not respond to a question about how the ad targets compare to the senator’s tastes in music.)
The goals of the other candidates seemed even more perplexed. Nevada Senator Catherine Cortez Masto’s campaign has prevented some of her ads from appearing to people interested in Saturday Night Live or former cast member Kate McKinnon. O’Rourke’s ads were aimed at those with a diverse list of interests, from BirdWatching magazine to One Direction to “drinking water.”
While Meta does not allow candidates to target users based on their race or ethnicity, they are allowed to target by gender, age, and location. Many Democratic candidates, including governments. Steve Sisolak of Nevada, Tony Evers of Wisconsin, and Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan targeted a large portion of their advertising specifically for women.
Fetterman, who has frequently criticized his opponent, Mehmet Oz, for his previous residence in New Jersey, used targeting to exclude people in the Garden State from receiving a handful of his ads.
Facebook’s interest-based targeting isn’t unique — it’s part of a larger trend in the political campaign industry to select more nuanced groups of voters. Meta allows campaigns, for example, to upload lists of phone numbers or email addresses of specific people who want to see their ads. and newer Technologies Personalize ads on streaming video and other platforms based on highly specific geographic and demographic data – so even neighbors watching the same show may see different political messages.
Experts said the use of this type of targeting has raised important questions about data privacy and user consent. Woolley, a researcher at UT-Austin, argued that Meta should place more limits on how campaigns 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 about a certain issue,” Woolley said. “People have reasonable expectations of being able to engage in specific interests without being arbitrarily targeted by political campaigns because of it.”
Users can change their Facebook settings to opt out of interest-based targeting for individual topics. Woolley noted that most people likely have no idea that they watch certain political ads because of their interests in a band or TV show.
Damon McCoy, a New York University professor affiliated with the research group Cybersecurity for Democracy, said the campaigns were using interest-based targeting “as an alternative to targeting a specific demographic that Facebook explicitly prohibits targeting,” such as race or ethnicity — essentially a loophole in the platform’s rules.
Meta spokeswoman Ashley Settle said in a statement that the company routinely updates and removes targeting options to improve the ad experience and reduce the potential for abuse.
“We want to connect people with the candidates and the issues they care about, while also 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 on certain topics, like politics.”
Experts said the main reason interest-based targeting of political campaigns works is that the United States is highly politically polarized, with many cultural indicators tied to political leanings in a way that they might not have been a few decades ago. Even some strategists who use social media targeting admit they are concerned about what the tactic says about American culture.
“It’s certainly worrying that people are so polarized now that you can learn so much about someone’s lifestyle habits just by whether they’re Democrat or Republican,” Claassen said.
To see what interests advertisers can use to target you, go to Facebook Ad theme settings page (Accessible only while logged in). You can choose to “show fewer” ads related to specific goals, which It is forbidden Advertisers can target you based on that interest. You can also click “…” in the top right corner of any Facebook ad and select “Why am I seeing this ad?” To find targeting information for the individual ads that are shown.