"Hit or Miss" – How personalized political advertising affects social media users


Social media users support compliance with data protection on social media platforms. However, they judge personalized advertising messages differently depending on which party they come from.

Article by Adriana Sofia Palloks (✉ adriana.palloks@univie.ac.at)

In 2018, the revelation of a data scandal caused by Cambridge Analytica dominated international news coverage. The British political consulting firm had analyzed the data of more than 50 million Facebook users for years in order to sell psychological profiles to parties that placed their political advertisements on Facebook. Not all personalized advertising is based on unethical practices like those of Cambridge Analytica. However, in the digital age, user data is the basis for political advertising (targeting). Targeting can be based on demographic data (age, gender, place of residence, etc.) or behavioral data (click language, topic preferences, etc.) of users.

Researchers from the University of Vienna analyzed the influence of personalized political ads on Austrian citizens. 430 participants were recruited in December 2019 for the study, representing the Austrian population in terms of demographics. At the beginning, participants were asked about their interests and their reactions to Facebook posts from family and friends. They were then randomly divided into three groups with different targeting measures: Group 1 received Facebook posts without targeting, Group 2 received Facebook posts based on their demographics or location, and Group 3 received posts based on their interests in addition to demographics. Participants in the last two groups were informed that the posting selections were based on their pre-exposure survey information. Participants were then shown promotional posts from the Austrian People's Party (ÖVP) or the Green Party. For each post, Facebook's original disclosure icons and information windows (Disclosure) were used, which revealed the promotional nature of the posts. With their study, the researchers aimed to find answers to the following two questions: Are voters able to identify and resist targeting practices? Or do they accept the advertising strategies when they are used by their preferred political party?

"Disclosures on social media inform the users about the used information the ads lean on", explains study author Alice Binder. However, it is interesting that "these disclosures have no effect on persuasion knowledge." The researchers explain this finding with the fact that social media users either do not have sufficient knowledge about data-driven advertising approaches or that the information window generated by Facebook is not enough to inform users about the origin of the advertisement. "Rather, the political fit, i.e. the match between one's own political stance and the respective party of the ad displayed plays an important role", continues Binder. "If this fit is high, the ad is judged to be less manipulative and more personalized, which leads to a better evaluation of the party. We conclude that users do not activate their defense mechanisms in relation to tailored ads against a preferred party." This finding is very interesting for advertising research, especially since party preference is decisive for whether users accept or reject advertising targeting.

Publication details

Binder, A., Stubenvoll, M., Hirsch, M., & Matthes, J. (2022). Why am I getting this ad? How the degree of targeting disclosures and political fit affect persuasion knowledge, party evaluation, and online privacy behaviors. Journal of Advertising. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1080/00913367.2021.2015727

The present study conducted at the University of Vienna investigated the extent to which disclosure of targeted political advertising appeals influences users in terms of persuasion, party rating, and privacy behavior. For the online study, a quota sample with a total of 430 participants was recruited in December 2019, reflecting the Austrian population in terms of age, gender, and education. Initially, participants were asked questions about their interests and usage behavior on Facebook. Before they were shown a series of Facebook posts of political parties, the researchers gave them a disclosure to inform them on which data the next posts stemmed from. Either no disclosure was shown, a disclosure indicating the use of demographic data, or a disclosure indicating the use of demographic information as well as information about specific interests. They were then shown a series of political ads from the Austrian People's Party (ÖVP) or the Green Party on Facebook, which they were asked to rate. (Image © Luca Sammarco)

Alice Binder is a senior scientist at the Department of Media and Communications at the Alpen-Adria-University of Klagenfurt. From 2016-2021, she was a pre- and postdoctoral researcher within the Department of Communication at the University of Vienna. Her research interests include persuasive communication, health communication, and food placement effects on children. (Image © Christian von Sikorski • AdMe Research Group)

Marlis Stubenvoll is a predoctoral researcher in the Department of Communication at the University of Vienna since December 2017. Her research interests include misinformation and personalized (political) advertising. She is also interested in resistance strategies against counter-attitudinal information. (Image © Anja Stevic • AdMe Research Group)

Melanie Hirsch is a predoctoral researcher in the Department of Communication at the University of Vienna since August 2019. Her research interests include political communication, social media, media psychology, and empirical methods. (Image © Anja Stevic • AdMe Research Group)

Jörg Matthes is Professor of Communication Science with a focus on Advertising Research, Head of the division of Advertising Research and Media Psychology (AdMe) and Chair of the Department of Communication. His research focuses on effects of various forms of advertising, the process of public opinion formation, news framing, and empirical methods. (Image © Christian von Sikorski • AdME Research Group)