How Labour and Conservative targeted advertising changed from 2017 to 2019 

Using unique adverts created (n = 271) by the Conservatives and Labour across 2017 and 2019 (unique = duplicates by body text removed) we can discern what the two parties are talking about and thus how they were using targeted advertisements as information devices. The data from 2019 comes from the first two weeks of the campaign (n= 203), while the data from the 2017 campaign comes from the whole 2017 campaign (n = 68).


By comparing the two campaigns, we can see that the way that Labour and the Conservatives are campaigning is changing, with the 2019 campaign more positive, less personalised and with fewer attacks on opponents. The Conservatives played a smarter game in their approach, while in contrast Labour appear to have stagnated. Nevertheless both parties changed from 2017 to 2019.


Overall, the topics of the campaign are different. Mobilisation and fundraising, health and social care and Brexit are up, while all others were stable or in decline.


For the parties, the Conservatives changed what they are talking about somewhat, but have radically altered how they deliver these topics especially in sentiment. In contrast, Labour did not alter their approach as much, with the topics used similar to those employed in 2017, while sentiment and use of leaders was slightly higher. Both the Conservatives and Labour appear to have learnt from their mistakes in 2017, but Labour appears to have had some hubris from their success in 2017. As such the group did not change up their approach.


1 — The ads have got more positive


Overall, 2019 is a much more positive affair than 2017. There was a 112% increase in average positive sentiment, as well as a -55% drop in average negative sentiment between the 2017 and 2019 elections.


The drive towards positivity has mainly occurred via the Conservatives, with their approach showing them to have copied the Labour Party. Corbyn and Labour ran a positive uplifting campaign in 2017 and did better than expected because of it. Now the Conservatives are trying to claim a bit of that magic with the party radically altering approach. Now the parties mirror one another, it is amazing how similar in sentiment the Labour and Conservative 2019 campaigns are; both are 3/4 positive 1/4 negative.

Graph 1 — Positivity and negativity in the sentiment of the adverts across Labour and Conservatives


It is clear the Conservatives switched up their approach, the 2017 Lynton Crosby approach has been thrown in the bin, as the party pushed on with a new tone in 2019. This approach clearly worked given the scale of the parties electoral success.


2 — The use of leaders both positively and negatively has decreased


The use of leaders declined via the Conservatives, but increased for Labour. Overall there has been a -5% drop in the use of party leaders in adverts, alongside a -15% drop in the use of opposition leaders. This ties in heavily with the more positive sentiment seen previously and shows how the Conservatives are adopting a more diverse approach than 2017. The Labour Party should have used Corbyn less, appreciating his marmite nature and loss of popularity.


In 2017 the Conservatives heavily personalised Theresa May, they relied too much on her personality and leadership. In reality she wasn’t as popular as polling or focus groups suggested and thus the Conservative party under-performed. In 2019 the Conservatives became more cautious in how they were using Boris Johnson, the use of leader has gone from 78% in 2017 to 52% in 2019. This greater nuance of the personalised use of the leader is born out in how they were targeting marginal seats. Johnson was used only in heavily leave voting seats (see our article here) while in other remain seats he was not used at all. This shows how the Conservatives were running a smarter campaign where leadership was being used in a more nuanced way where electorally valuable. Nevertheless, for the Conservatives it is clearly still a core approach of the Conservative party to use the party leader even though it is in decline.


Labour on the other hand avoided using Corbyn in their 2017 targeted advertisements, he did not feature at all (0%) as some in the party believed him to be a liability. This caution has continued, but the party is much happier to use Corbyn in imagery and video (21%) although rates are far below the Conservatives. This increasing use of leadership was not a smart move given that there was no Corbynmania in 2019.

Graph 2 — Use of party leader and opposition leader across the adverts of Labour and the Conservatives


Negative use of opposition leaders was also readily seen. The Labour party hugely increased their use of opposition leaders from 6% to 29%. Although still far less than the Conservative party, this attacking approach shows a shift in Labour tactics towards a more attacking campaign. Nevertheless, although now clearly a key tactic clearly seen across both parties, negative attack advertising was more obviously a Conservative weapon. 100% of Conservative 2017 advertisements featured an opposition leader, however akin to the use of the leader, the Conservatives also changed tack in attack advertising. There was a -39% drop in the use of opposition leaders, with this reflective of the Conservatives more positive campaign. The Conservatives were attacking opposition leaders less often, but rates still remained high (61% of adverts).


3— The topics being talked about have shifted dramatically


This election was called ‘The Brexit Election’, Brexit featured a lot, but although seeing an increase in use (from 15% to 22%) this was not driven by the Conservatives (-5%) but actually by Labour (+19%). The Conservatives changed their tactical approach and were discussing a wider array of topics than in 2017, often merging them with Brexit.


The Conservatives heavily talked about the EU, leadership and the economy, reflecting their approach seen in 2017. However it is interesting to see the party change tack in 2019 towards talking more about party action content (from 0% to 19%). This is content designed to get people activated to register to vote, gather funds and data, make voting plans and organise supporters. As well as party action, the Conservatives made small increases in the use of health and social care and government practice (reform of government institutions). Overall the party kept its general approach but toned down how much they discuss Brexit and leadership in favour of a more diversified approach .


This election was called ‘The Brexit Election’, Brexit featured a lot, but although seeing an increase in use (from 15% to 22%) this was not driven by the Conservatives (-5%) but actually by Labour (+19%). The Conservatives have changed their tactical approach and are discussing a wider array of topics than in 2017, often merging them with Brexit. Labour were clearly broadening their approach towards mainstream issues, however in doing so they were offering fewer of the policy aspects they campaigned upon in 2017. Their ability to influence younger people (16% in 2017, 0% 2019) was for example under threat as they used targeted advertising to reach broader demographics rather than offering a broad array of policy areas.

Graph 3 — The topics the parties are talking about — leadership, party action and health and social care dominate


Overall the Conservative party were much more stable in their approach to topics across the elections. Nevertheless, there has been a huge churn in topic choice between the 2017 and 2019 General Elections. The Conservatives have seen their approach change by a total of 42%, while the Labour Party have changed tact much more, changing by a total of 93%.

Graph 4— The changes in topic seen from 2017 to 2019


The central shifts in topic choice across both parties are visible below, it is clear that the Conservatives swapped out a variety of issues in exchange for party action content. While Labour swapped out talking about the economy, young people and education in order to talk about the EU and health and social care.

Graph 5— How the topics have changed from 2017 to 2019


In terms of the change we have seen across the topics used by the two parties, we have seen a band of core topics now dominate. Labour have changed approach, they are avoiding topic diversity instead focusing on core areas. Overall the EU, health and social care alongside party action have all increased enormously, while the economy, education and young people have all declined. Finally, some topics are relatively stable including leadership and protection, but there has been a surprising level of change.

Graph 6 — The topics covered by Labour and the Conservatives 2017 vs 2019


So what is going on?


Tactics changed with this primarily driven in style by the Conservatives but in topic by Labour. The fact that the parties were campaigning online differently highlights the different election outcome we got on December 13th. The Conservatives realised that their 2017 campaign was weak, too focused on Theresa May and Brexit. As such they changed approach, they were more positive and less attack focused on opposition leaders. They also focused away from Brexit and leadership towards other areas voters care about. Nevertheless, their campaign was still very negative compared to Labour. Labour in contrast remained more stable. However the party was less afraid to use Corbyn and negative attack advertising, although their tone is still positive. Overall Labour showed stagnation and made tactical mistakes while the Conservatives changed in a smart way, highlighting the huge victory the Tory Party achieved on election day.


NB. It is important to note that the data examined here is not reflective of the total number of adverts of each type sent because duplicates by text were removed. Nor is the data weighted by impressions or spend, instead the data represents a sample of the topics, sentiment and approach to leaders the adverts used across both election periods.

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