A colourful illustration of yellow numbers 1, 2 and 3 with pink green and blue swirls behind them

The Hidden Campaign Costs of ANUSA Elections

Art by Sian Williams

CW: Sexual Assault

If you’re anything like me, you’re addicted to your phone. While procrastinating on Instagram and Facebook, you likely saw a few, or a lot, of ads from ANUSA tickets, ranging from how-to-votes to specific policy positions. The COVID-19 social distancing rules killed almost all in-person campaigning usually seen during election week and the money that would usually be spent on campaign merchandise was now free to pump ads onto our feeds.


Facebook, after sustained pressure after the 2016 US Presidential election from campaigners, in 2019, spurred by the Cambridge Analytica scandal, launched the Facebook Ad Library. This database allows you to go to any Facebook or Instagram page and see what ads they have running at any given time. If they’re classified as ‘political’, Facebook also allows you to go back through the previous ads a page has run as well as the demographics that were targeted, the location of those people and how much was spent. When one has a database of Facebook ads, extra free time facilitated by online learning and a hunger to procrastinate as Week 6 looms, one just has to have a look.


An important distinction that needs to be made when it comes to ANUSA election ads is that not every ticket’s page is being considered ‘political’ by Facebook. I don’t know if this is due to them not  self identifying or if Facebook just doesn’t count them as such. Either way, it means that the data we work with is in no way complete. We can still find some interesting facts with the data we have but for those non political ads or pages we’re unable to see anything more than the current ads being run.  Many pages were also quick off the mark deleting their page and timing ads to expire when polls closed, though we can still see the ads if they were marked as political. 


Once you take all the ads that I could find listed in the database, as well as the ones that I saw on my own newsfeed, there were at least 40 across all tickets  for the whole week. Of these 40, 28 were from ‘Proud’, all of which being classified as political. ‘You’ coming second with 7, 2 of which were classified as political. ‘Brighter Together’ with 7, 5 being political, ‘Refocus’ with 5, ‘Spice Up!’ with 2, all political, and ‘Go the Distance’ and ‘A New Way Forward’ running 1.


This huge disparity between ‘Proud’ and the rest of the field is interesting. Based on estimates, they far outspent their rivals and received 14 of seats on the SRC, with one of the six executive positions, the second largest grouping behind ‘Brighter Together’. All other tickets, ‘Refocus,’ ‘Forward’ and ‘You’, only received 3 Gen-Reps and 3 College-Reps combined. Of course ‘Proud’’s success can be put down to many things but the amount spent and the sheer number of ads they ran must be taken into account.


Though ad numbers are interesting in what they reveal about how each of the tickets hopes to maximise their votes, what about the average number of impressions? Or the number of times the ad appeared on someone’s timeline? Or how much was spent on each ad? Sadly, as not every ticket or ad was classified as ‘political’, we only have good data for ‘Proud’ and incomplete data for ‘Brighter Together’ and ‘You’. Over their 28 ads, on average ‘Proud’ received around 5,300 impressions, though this was swayed by a select number of ads that received substantially more than the rest. Overall they had around 120 thousand impressions (!), around 70-90% of the total ANUSA campaign ad impressions for the week. Given the ANU undergraduate population is around 10-12 thousand I wouldn’t be surprised if almost every individual on campus saw at least one of their ads over the week. When these two metrics are considered together it’s clear to see that ‘Proud’’s ads were seen more than any other campaign. ‘Brighter Together’, from their 4 ‘political’ ads, received 1,150 average impressions, ‘You’, from their two political ads, received between 1,500-2,500 impressions and ‘Spice Up’ received around 500 impressions per ad. No other ticket had ads classified as political so we cannot compare them but it is clear that ‘Proud’ is far ahead compared to these numbers.


We can go even deeper in the specifically political ads with a geographical location. Unsurprisingly, all of the ads were shown predominantly in the ACT, though ‘Proud’ had around 8-15% of their impressions being shown in NSW.  On a stranger note, it appears that ‘Proud’ accidentally first ran their how-to-vote ad to the whole of Australia, with 60% of impressions ultimately being in the ACT, 17% in NSW, 9% in SA, 9% in VIC, 5% WA, 2% in QLD and <1% in TAS. ‘Brighter Together’ also had a similar issue with their how-to-vote ad being shown all over Australia but with 21% of impressions being in QLD, 19% in NSW, 18% in VIC, 15% in NT, only 9% in ACT, 8% WA, 4% SA, and 2% being in TAS. From this, over 70% of impressions were to men. This ad was also shown to all age groups, so ultimately 20% of the impression from this ad were men over the age of 65. From what I can see only ‘Proud’ fixed this problem, limiting their how-to-vote ad only to the ACT and NSW. 


The last demographic breakdown that can be made from the library is the gender and age breakdown. This is where things really “Spice Up” (excuse the pun). ‘Brighter Together’ only campaigned on issues of campus safety to women, also overwhelmingly campaigning on issues of sustainability to them, with 64% of the impressions being women. This is mirrored in ‘Proud!’’s advertising. They ran a SASH ad in English only to women, while their ad in Hindi had a gendered impression split of exactly 50/50. This is also the case with smoking areas and pill testing being strongly targeted to women in the beginning of the week. After the 25th, this changed and by the end of the week they were closer to equal. Obviously this raises questions about why this was the case. Was ‘Proud’ deliberately targeting them this way and changing it later in the week or is it Facebook’s algorithm that created this bias? Another factor worth noting about ‘Proud’ is that their policy focused ads, in the beginning of the week, appeared to be pushed to men more, while their more ‘joke’ and ‘fun’ ads were pushed more to women. As the week progressed, in the policy space, this became more equal but ultimately their ‘joke’ ads were still being pushed to women by the close of polls, some as high as 60%. In contrast, ‘Proud”’s Mandarin and Hindi ads were much more equal across the board, if with a slight favourability to men in some cases.


Finally, the big question. Which campaign spent the most? As the data isn’t complete, this question isn’t simple. Based on what we have, ‘Proud’ is far ahead, with estimates, after taking into account funding caps, having spent roughly $15-30 per ad for their whole run, but for their campaign video, the one with the backing audio ‘Feel The Way I Do’ by the Jungle Giants they spent a huge $200-299 on the one ad. This ad was by far the most seen in the campaign with over 25 thousand impressions, 90% being to people in the ACT between the ages of 18-25. From this it can be expected that they spent roughly $400-800 on Facebook ads, and their funding cap was around $900.


This move to online campaigning has been slowly happening over time as in-person campaigning areas and regulations become more and more restrictive and people realise the possibilities of online campaigning. COVID-19 has simply sped up this process. Facebook Ad library can give us important insights where election regulations need to catch up, as well as seeing who the candidates and tickets are campaigning to, even if incomplete this year, implying how they value individuals and where they think possible votes are in our community.


If you’d like to give the Facebook Ad library a try, you can find it here: https://www.facebook.com/ads/library/ 

Just type in the name of the Facebook or Instagram page and select either ‘all ads’ or ‘issues, elections or politics’ tab.



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