Oct 12, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Targeting two Americas

Illustration of two opposing megaphones in red and blue with US flags ascending from the sound pieces

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

In paid posts on the world's largest social media platform, the country's two political parties are speaking to two separate and distinct Americas.

Why it matters: Detailed targeting data from social media giant Meta offer a glimpse into America's deep political divide — and how political operatives are working to exploit and adapt to it.

Driving the news: Axios analyzed more than 93,000 Facebook and Instagram ad targeting inputs from 25 campaigns, party committees and independent political spenders that have run paid posts on the platforms since July.

  • The data, publicly available on Meta's political ad archive, show which consumer habits and interests those groups are using to try to reach Americans most likely to respond to their ads.

The big picture: Last year, Meta banned advertisers from targeting their ads using "sensitive" criteria such as race, sexual orientation and political or religious views.

  • Political campaigns looking to hone their ad targeting have turned to more mundane consumer preferences to try to reach highly specialized segments of the electorate.


  • The most commonly used targeting criterion among the ads examined by Axios came from the Democratic side: more than 900 filtered out fans of Joe Rogan, the ultra-popular podcaster, ensuring they wouldn't see the ads.
  • But two Democratic campaigns — Texas gubernatorial candidate Beto O'Rourke and Senate hopeful John Fetterman in Pennsylvania — also sought out Rogan fans for a handful of their ads.
  • In general, Democrats tended to target fans of NPR, magazines like Glamour and Vanity Fair, and Spanish-language outlets such as Univision, as well as people interested in "journalism" generally.
  • Republicans were far less likely to target people based on their media preferences, though a handful singled out prominent Fox News hosts Steve Doocy and Brian Kilmeade.


  • Democratic campaigns and committees ran hundreds of ads aimed at fans of artists such as actress Issa Rae, director Tyler Perry, pop stars Lady Gaga and Azealia Banks and genres including hip hop and salsa.
  • They also specifically excluded fans of certain artists from seeing their ads, including rock acts — and outspoken conservatives — Kid Rock and Ted Nugent.
  • Republican targets included fans of TV series "Duck Dynasty" and "Shark Tank," country music giants Big & Rich and George Strait and celebrity chef Paula Dean.
  • A handful of ads from Georgia Senate candidate Herschel Walker also sought fans of early-2000s rock bands such as Papa Roach and Shinedown.


  • Republican advertisers know which grocery shoppers they don't want to reach: dozens of their ads filtered out people interested in Trader Joe's and Whole Foods Market.
  • Instead, they targeted people who eat at Chick-fil-A and Cracker Barrel and shop at outdoors stores like Cabela's and Bass Pro Shops.
  • Democrats excluded Bass Pro Shops fans from hundreds of ads, and instead targeted people who shop at Nordstrom, Lululemon and Zara, and get groceries delivered by HelloFresh and Blue Apron.
  • Both parties also targeted people — and, among the sample Axios examined, neither excluded people — interested in Walmart.


  • Republicans were far more likely than Democrats to target athletic fan bases with their digital ads, seeking out fans of football, baseball, basketball, hockey, tennis, hunting, fishing and car racing — both NASCAR and Formula 1.
  • Republicans also targeted people interested in college and professional sports news, including ESPN, Barstool Sports and channels devoted to SEC and Big 10 football.
  • Democrats were more likely to prevent people from seeing their ads based on athletic interests. NASCAR and deer hunting were two of the top three exclusion categories among the ads Axios examined.
  • But some sports were seen as potential winners: dozens of Democratic ads targeted soccer fans, including people interested in the Mexican, Argentine, Colombian, Costa Rican and Peruvian national teams.

What they're saying: "When politicians are trying to deliver a targeted message, they have an interest in making sure they match the message to the audience," said Laura Edelson, a cybersecurity and misinformation researcher at New York University.

  • "They also have an interest in making sure that the ad is not shown to an audience it will not resonate with, because there is some good evidence ... that showing people a message meant for another group turns off the group it's not meant for."

Between the lines: Digital platforms provide an opportunity traditional advertising doesn't: the ability to reach people with messages they will respond to, according to data from those very platforms.

  • That's "what draws their attention the most, [but] it's also what they find the most scary, what they find the most potentially harmful," Edelson said.
  • "This is how we get to a place of politicians targeting people because of their interest in NASCAR, their attendance at gun shows or their interest in African American hair braiding. Not only is that an option that's offered to them, but it's really useful."
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