Facebook should disclose and limit pricing for political campaign ads

Facebook should disclose and limit pricing for political campaign ads
From TechCrunch - February 27, 2018

An interesting report by Antonio Garca Martnez at Wired on the Facebook ad machinery in play during the 2016 election highlighted an issue that I hadnt considered before: that Facebooks ad marketplace gave a huge pricing advantage to one candidate over the other. It seems like a no-brainer in retrospect that these pricing differences should at the very least be made public in the case of political contests, and arguably should be limited in the way political ads are elsewhere.

The pricing differences are not detailed in the article, exactly, but in chatter on Twitter afterwards, two parties one would ordinarily not expect to agree did just that.

Brad Parscale, who directed Trumps digital media campaign (and was just tapped to do so again), said that compared with the Clinton campaign, he was paying pennies on the dollar for ad space. I bet we were 100x to 200x her, he wrote in a tweet, referring to the number of impressions theyd receive for a given sum. We had CPMs that were pennies in some cases. (CPM is cost per 1,000 impressions.)

Unexpectedly, Jennifer Palmieri chimed in; the former communications director for the Clinton campaign merely replied to Parscale: Agreed.

(Update: Former Facebook VP of ads Andrew Bosworth (AKA Boz) released some limited data showing that the Trump campaign actually paid more on average than the Clinton campaign. Palmieri also clarified to TechCrunch that her comment was meant to indicate agreement with the portion of Parscales tweet saying Trump had made better use of the platform.

That said, if Parscales statement is true, ads were being purchased by Trump at very low prices, well below what Facebooks data shows. And regardless of who was paying more or less, the argument stands that the process by which these amounts are arrived at should be publicly disclosed and arguably limited. Furthermore it is in order to avoid this kind of confusion that Facebook should be more transparent to begin with.)

Now, as the Wired article points out, and as anyone in the ad business could tell you, differences in costs are commonplace, always have been. Targeting wealthy folks in cities is generally more expensive than targeting less-wealthy folks in rural areas, for instance, which already does some work to explain the cost difference in this case.

Theres also play in the pricing depending on how much Facebook thinks your ad will boost traffic and engage users. If its algorithms think an ad will cause users to spend more time on the site, that ad will be offered at a discounted rate compared with one that doesnt seem to push that button in people. (Kind of flies in the face of the sites supposed pursuit of time well spent, but thats a discussion for another time.)

As Bosworth explained earlier:

So its perfectly reasonable in a way that the Trump campaigns savvy positioning, targeting and provocative content resulted in Facebook giving them an excellent rate on ads. And that wouldnt be a problem if this was Coke versus Pepsiit would be a simple case of smart ad spending.

This is certainly a case of smart ad spendingtheres no use denying Trumps campaign got far more mileage out of its money than Clintonsbut theres nothing simple about it.

Political spending is, of course, a massively complex issue and I dont intend to dive deeply into it. And in the end there are plenty of loopholes through which any candidate or PAC could slip.

But just that fundamental fact, that one political candidate was being charged a hundred times more than the other for similar access to a platforms users, should give anyone pause. Thats fundamentally wrong, because a Presidential election is fundamentally different from choosing between Coke and Pepsi. (I hear you cynics out there saying it isnt, but bear with me here.)


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