The Tories are spending big on YouTube ads. Here’s why

We’ve never seen a British political party spending so much money on YouTube.

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

If, over the weekend, you logged onto YouTube to catch the highlights of your football team’s match, you might have been baffled by a large banner on the prime real estate at the top of the homepage. The Conservatives were trying to tell you to vote for them to end arguments over Brexit and to stop the torpor of a hung parliament.

The banner ad was tied to a 78-second video that the Tories had uploaded earlier in the day, which would begin auto-playing. Within a day, 3.5 million people had seen at least 30 seconds of it.

The Conservative social media team has this morning followed that up with another, shorter advert at the top of the YouTube homepage. It’s been seen by half a million people in four hours (and as the video is less than 30 seconds long, every “view” as counted by YouTube is the duration of the video). If politicos were baffled by the slapdash, throw-stuff-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks campaign of the Tories on social media in recent weeks, the final days before we go to vote on Thursday have provided clarity. The Tories are tacking back to traditional, brute force advertising.

And yet there’s something new here. In previous elections, parties have spent big on billboards and television adverts; in recent years, they’ve microtargeted voters to their hearts’ content. But we’ve never seen a British political party spending so much money on YouTube.

The reason is obvious: YouTube is the media for many of us. One in every eight minutes of video – whether online or offline – seen by UK viewers is watched on YouTube, according to Ofcom.

YouTube celebrates its 15th birthday next year, and many still malign the site as the home of quirky cat videos. But in reality, it’s a fully-fledged media platform with its own celebrities, news ecosystems and political debates, and it’s a place most of us visit at least once a day. Young adults – the type the Tories want to try and attract to get away from their usual cadre of voters – spend more than an hour on YouTube per day, and another 12 minutes a day watching it on smart TVs in living rooms across the country.

But even among the general population, YouTube is ubiquitous. Only one in 20 adult internet users doesn’t visit YouTube regularly, says Ofcom. So the massive marketing spend suddenly seems obvious. This is the new TV; the top-placed banner ad – which according to YouTube’s own ad manager tools costs hundreds of thousands of pounds – is the new billboard.

While much of the focus of media coverage has been on which parties are microtargeting which voters using Facebook adverts, the Tories have shown their hand, and where they think the real battle is to be fought: on YouTube.

This is likely in part because the Conservatives simply can’t compete with Labour and Jeremy Corbyn on Facebook. The Labour leader’s presence on Mark Zuckerberg’s platform outstrips all the other political parties combined. But it’s also the fact that most of us will check in with YouTube every day.

Combined, the two adverts have, in just three days, accounted for one in every five views the party has had on YouTube in the 13 years it has had its account (which is still named “webcameronuk”, after David Cameron’s attempt at direct democracy, doing digital hustings, in the time he was in opposition).

The differences between the two adverts also reflect the party's thinking about who it is trying to reach and where. The first paid-for advert was longer and much more traditional in its presentation. It could almost appear on TV – which is likely where many of its 3.5 million views to date came from. Posted on a Saturday, it’s easy to imagine the various situations that people encountered it. As well as football fans checking match highlights – appeased by a backing track of music that echoes coverage of European matches, as pointed out by Steven Buckley, who researches YouTube at the University of the West of England – there would be parents sitting their child down in front of their favourite cartoons to fill in the time between activities on weekends. Others may be young adults sitting down together in front of the TV to watch their favourite YouTubers, who encounter the blunt political messaging from the Tories.

The second advert, snappier and more cartoonish, a cut-down version of ad campaigns they’ve previously used in targeted messaging on social media, was posted just before rush hour on Monday morning – prime time for commuters sat on buses and trains scrolling through YouTube on their phones.

One question some have raised is why the Tories are spending money on ads when so many of them can be skipped or snuffed out by ad blockers. But the timing of the advertising campaigns negates any worries about that. Many people use ad blockers on their laptops and desktops, but don’t on phones or TVs – where many of the views are likely to come from.

And to be clear, this is a big spend. The two ad slots on YouTube – which as they tot up views will increase the amount the party has to pay – will likely cost more than the £200,000 the party has spent on Facebook ads in the entirety of the campaign to date. It could be worth it, though. The party has increased its number of subscribers on YouTube by around 10 per cent over the weekend, meaning every message it pumps out after this is likely to be seen by even more people. It’s a huge roll of the dice, but one that could pay off come Thursday.