The digital election campaign is under way. Different audiences have been thoroughly A/B tested, and the parties have settled on some of their core messaging with the Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats all having spent in excess of £100,000 on Facebook and Instagram campaigns to date.

However, Facebook is not the only place that the parties are spending their money. Another online battleground we’re exploring this week is Google search, where paid ads appear alongside certain keywords. Although there’s often little scrutiny of these ads, they account for a significant amount of online spending – Labour has spent £64,000 since the end of October, equivalent to almost half its Facebook spending.

Parties are also spending their campaign funds on Snapchat, with its much younger audience, although that investment is significantly lower than their Facebook outlay.

Labour: contrast in messages on different social networks

The Labour party appears to have decided that, to reach young voters, it needs to do so outside Facebook, whose audience has become older over time. With this in mind the party has been producing adverts on Snapchat geared toward that social network’s demographic (young adults) and style.

Labour campaigns on Facebook and Snapchat



Labour campaigns on Facebook and Snapchat. Illustration: Guardian Design/Facebook/Snapchat

One of two ads placed by Labour on Snapchat in the past week is a five-second clip with a remain message, superimposing rapid-fire wording promising a “final say” on Brexit over images of both the EU and union flag.

To date Labour has spent £128,000 on Facebook and Instagram, compared with £15,000 on Snapchat.

The Tories are on Snapchat … but you couldn’t tell by their messaging

While Labour appears to have catered its messaging specifically for the younger audience of Snapchat, the Conservatives have opted to use much the same themes, and very similar ads, across social networks.

Conservative campaigns on Facebook and Snapchat



Conservative campaigns on Facebook and Snapchat. Illustration: Guardian Design/Facebook/Snapchat

Most of the adverts posted by the Tories on Facebook in the past week have been geared towards an older audience, with one exception being targeted at younger men comparing Labour’s free broadband promise to dial-up internet. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given that most people in these age groups would never have had to live through this pain, the image received fewer than 4,000 impressions over the weekend before being made inactive.

Facebook and Instagram are much more attractive to the Conservatives: the party has spent £143,000 on Facebook to date, compared with £3,200 on Snapchat.

Liberal Democrats: many ads but just two messages

Despite being a pro-remain party, and presumably needing to reach younger voters, the Liberal Democrats are yet to advertise on Snapchat during the campaign. Instead they’re channelling their energy into two broad messages on Facebook.

Liberal Democrat campaign ad on Facebook



A Liberal Democrat campaign on Facebook. Illustration: Guardian Design/Facebook

The first is a clear “Stop Brexit”, and talks of a “£50bn remain bonus”. The second involves the Liberal Democrats’ love of bar charts to suggest they have a chance of winning seats.

Facebook and Instagram spending

Labour targets Lib Dem voters on Google

Labour has massively outspent the Tories on Google ads since the election was called, with £64,000 worth of ads placed, compared with the Tories’ £12,500. The Lib Dems have placed no ads at all, according to Google’s transparency tool.

Labour has used the bulk of its ads to target potential Lib Dem voters. The party ran four ads with the slogan “Vote Lib Dem, get Boris Johnson”, and three pushing the party’s second referendum policy. By contrast just one took aim at the Conservatives explicitly.

While Google’s ad library displays all ads placed by political parties, Google does not say what keywords they were served on, thereby providing only half the picture.

Brexit party Google ad



Photograph: Google

Through manual keyword searches the Guardian found that Brexit party ads appeared on a number of Labour-related search terms such as “Labour party” and “Jeremy Corbyn”. The Brexit party spent £800 during the reporting period.

Meanwhile the Tories have been playing defensively, using an ad to insist the NHS is “not for sale” after reports of secret meetings with US drug companies. They’ve also been attacking the Lib Dems, and placed an ad on searches related to postal vote registration which linked to a Conservative webpage.

More importantly, the Conservatives also inspired the digital dashboard team to launch a new feature: tactical voting tip of the week.

Tory tactical voting advertisement



Photograph: Google

The Google ad library shows data for ads placed between 29 October and 11 November. Spending data covers 27 October to 10 November. The data was pulled from the ad library on 18 November.

Digital dashboard team: Michael Barton, Pamela Duncan, Niamh McIntyre, David Pegg and Joseph Smith



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