Political Microtargeting: Relationship Between Personalized
Advertising on Facebook and Votersâ€™ Responses
Sanne Kruikemeier,1 Minem Sezgin,2 and Sophie C. Boerman1
This study examines the relationship between exposure to political personalized ads on Facebook and votersâ€™
responses toward those ads and studies the mediating role of the use of persuasion knowledge in this relationship. Results from an online experiment (N = 122) demonstrate that exposure to a personalized ad from a
political party activates persuasion knowledge, which in turn leads to lower intentions to engage in electronic
word of mouth, but only for those participants who recall seeing the Sponsored label. We found no effects on
source trustworthiness. Adding a text explaining the practice of personalized advertising did not lead to higher
levels of persuasion knowledge and did not change the responses toward the message.
Social media play an important role during election
campaigns.1â€“3 Recently, parties and politicians seized the
opportunity to engage in advertising on social network sites
(SNSs) by targeting specific social media users.4 For instance, Facebook boosts political ads during election time so
that they appear higher in a usersâ€™ news feed.5 Communication on these SNSs can be personalized and targeted based on
usersâ€™ available demographic profile information, stated interests, likes, and location that users shared voluntarily.6â€“8
The usage of personalized communication enables political
actors to efficiently reach potential voters who might be
difficult to reach otherwise against relatively low costs.4
Today, online microtargeting, such as the use of personalized
ads, has become an important campaign strategy during
To date, the consequences of political marketing are
understudied,10 especially with regard to online political
marketing and microtargeting.11 Microtargeting involves
finding and combining information about individualsâ€™ political preferences and consumer habits. [.] These individuals
could then be targeted [online] with messages designed to
appeal to them (p. 5).12 Currently, a major gap in research
on technology and election advertising exists in understanding the psychology of the voter in response to digital
election ads (p. 5).13 This lack of research is surprising,
considering that many claim that microtargeting might harm
political processes.11 Many voters are unaware that they are
being targeted, but if they knew, they might avoid campaign
information.12 This could have serious implications not only
for campaigning effects but also for society at large. Surprisingly, previous research has not dealt with votersâ€™ responses to microtargeting. Where general tweets or Facebook
posts can affect voters in a positive way,1,2 personalized political ads might generate totally different effects. The usage
of personal information, such as previous online behavior or
personal information, may be perceived as invasive14â€“16 and
thus may evoke resistance.
To understand citizensâ€™ responses toward political messages on SNSs, this study examines the effects of exposure to
different types of political Facebook posts (regular posts vs.
personalized ads) on the intention to engage in electronic
word of mouth (eWOM) and perceived trustworthiness of the
postâ€™s source. To examine the underlying process, we examine the mediating role of the use of persuasion knowledge,
defined as personal beliefs toward, and knowledge about,
advertising.17 Last, this study investigates whether informing
voters about the practice of personalized advertising may
Votersâ€™ Responses Toward Personalized
Prior research found that personalized online advertising
has a great variety of influences on people. Some studies note
that people perceive personalized ads as useful because they
reduce information overload, serve usersâ€™ needs, and provide
aids for decision-making.18,19 However, some people are
concerned about their privacy and perceive personalized ads
as creepy.14â€“16 In addition, when the content of advertising is
political, the positive consequences seem to be largely absent. Personalized ads leads to lower support for politicians,
lower engagement in political behavior, negative attitudes,
Amsterdam School of Communication Research ASCoR, University of Amsterdam, Amsterdam, The Netherlands.
Communication Science, University of Amsterdam, Amsterdam, The Netherlands.
CYBERPSYCHOLOGY, BEHAVIOR, AND SOCIAL NETWORKING
Volume 19, Number 6, 2016
Âª Mary Ann Liebert, Inc.
lower source trustworthiness, and more ad skepticism.12,20
However, evidence remains anecdotal because a lack of research into the persuasiveness of personalized ads exists.
This study addresses this gap in the literature.
Persuasion Knowledge and Personalized
Persuasion knowledge is important when examining the
implication and consequences of personalized advertising.
Persuasion knowledge can be defined as personal beliefs and
knowledge about advertising motives and tactics.17 Citizens
can use this knowledge in response to a persuasive message
to decide upon the perceived appropriateness and effectiveness of the tactics used in the message.17 We expect that the
activation and usage of persuasion knowledge play an important role in affecting citizensâ€™ responses to different types
of political posts on Facebook. In other words, if citizens
become aware of the sponsored content, they might respond
negatively to political ads and resist the information.
Regular Facebook posts appear in peopleâ€™s timelines because their Facebook friends liked or shared them or commented on them. This means that a post sent by a political
party can appear in a personâ€™s timeline, even if this person is
not connected to this party. In this situation, the only information provided is, for instance, Friend A, Friend B, and 11
others like Party X. Because these types of posts are not
advertising, chances are low that they will activate persuasion knowledge.
Personalized ads on Facebook appear in peopleâ€™s timelines
because the sender paid for them. These posts look similar
to regular posts, with the exception that they include a label
saying Sponsored. Research has demonstrated that making
the commercial purpose more salient, by disclosing it using a
label, enhances the activation of persuasion knowledge.21,22
Therefore, we expect that compared with a regular post, a
personalized Facebook ad may activate citizensâ€™ persuasion
knowledge. However, research has also provided evidence for
the fact that labels, such as Sponsored, are often unnoticed23,24
and misunderstood.24,25 This means that the label, Sponsored,
may not be sufficient to activate citizenâ€™s persuasion knowledge. For that reason, we examine whether a short training that
informs citizens about the practice of targeted advertising may
help citizens to develop their persuasion knowledge and,
consequently, use this knowledge in response to a personalized ad. Prior studies have shown that additional information
accompanying a label or logo can increase its effects.24â€“26
Altogether, we expect that
H1: A Facebook post disseminated by a political party will
lead to different levels of persuasion knowledge, with (a) a
regular post leading to the lowest scores of persuasion
knowledge, (b) followed by a personalized ad, and (c) a
personalized ad plus a training leading to the highest scores
of persuasion knowledge.
Moreover, the realization that a message has a persuasive
purpose has repeatedly been shown to alter the interaction
with the sender and consequently peopleâ€™s attitudes toward
the sender and the message.17,27 This effect of the activation
of persuasion knowledge on the responses to the message
may be explained by a difference in processing. The Elaboration Likelihood Model (ELM) suggests that people can
process a message through the central route, which involves
careful and thoughtful consideration of the information, or
through the peripheral route, which focuses more on simple
cues in the persuasion context.28
According to the ELM, warnings of the persuasive intent
of a message, such as the label, Sponsored, in the Facebook
post that indicates it is a personalized ad, might induce resistance of the message by evoking more biased processing.28
In the context of Facebook, this would mean that the Sponsored label motivates the Facebook user to carefully scrutinize
the message and thus to use the central route of processing. In
other words, when the personalized ad activates persuasion
knowledge, this may motivate people to process the message,
its content, and its sender more carefully and critically.29 In
the situation where a label is not provided, and people are not
aware of the commercial nature of a Facebook post, they are
probably more likely to use the peripheral route. The fact that
their friends like the sender of a post or the post itself may then
be a cue that influences their attitude and behavior.
We therefore expect that a regular Facebook post sent by a
political party does not evoke biased processing and resistance, whereas a personalized ad on Facebook does. This
may cause a difference in the perceived trustworthiness of
the source of the post. Source trustworthiness is defined as
the perceived credibility and honesty of the communicator.30
When people understand the persuasiveness of the message,
the trustworthiness of the sender decreases because the
commercial aims of the advertiser become known.27 Hence,
we expect that exposure to personalized advertising triggers
peopleâ€™s awareness of its persuasive nature, motivating them
to process the post more critically, which ultimately reduces
their trust in the political party.
We also expect that the different Facebook posts and a
training may influence citizenâ€™s likelihood to engage in
eWOM. In this study, eWOM is defined as any positive or
negative statement made by potential, actual, or former
voters about a political party or politician, which is made
available to a multitude of people through the Internet (based
on a previous definition31). On Facebook, eWOM includes,
for instance, liking the post, commenting on it, or sharing it
with others. People are more likely to engage in eWOM
when they see their friendsâ€™ involvement in ads on Facebook.32,33 In a situation where persuasion knowledge is not
activated, and people use the peripheral route, their friendsâ€™
engagement may be a cue that encourages them to also engage in eWOM. However, when a Facebook post is a personalized ad, and people become aware of its persuasive
nature, this may again enforce biased processing and resistance, making it less likely that they would engage in
eWOM.12,19 Hence, based on the ELM and prior research,
we propose a mediation hypothesis (Fig. 1):
H2: The level of persuasion knowledge in response to the
three types of Facebook posts (regular post vs. personalized
ad vs. personalized ad plus training) negatively affects (a)
the perceived trustworthiness of the political party and (b)
the intention to engage in eWOM.
Participants and research design
To test our hypotheses, a factorial between-subjects design
was employed in May and June of 2015. This experiment
368 KRUIKEMEIER ET AL.
entailed three conditions: Participants were exposed to either a regular Facebook post, the same post, but labeled as
a personalized ad (Sponsored), or to the personalized ad
combined with a training explaining the practice of personalized advertising. Participants were recruited through the
online message board from the University of Amsterdam
(N = 122, 78.7 percent = female; Mage = 21.19, SDage = 2.27).
Procedure and stimulus material
After clicking on a URL that redirected respondents to the
online experiment, participants were instructed that they
were going to see a Facebook message. Participants were
instructed that this message appeared between other posts on
their own Facebook News Feed. After this short instruction
page, they were randomly assigned to one of the three conditions. Participants were then exposed to the stimulus material and redirected to a questionnaire. Each participant
viewed a screenshot of a fictitious Facebook post sent by a
political actor (party leader) from the Dutch political party,
D66. This post was based on an actual political ad that was
posted on Facebook during the last political election in The
Netherlands.a In all conditions, the post said â€˜â€˜Do you want
more jobs, lower costs, and better education too? Vote D66.â€™â€™
On top of the post, the text: â€˜â€˜Sophie Watergang, Minem
Sezgin, and 4 other friends like D66â€™â€™ was placed. In the
regular Facebook post, this was the only additional information provided. In the personalized ad condition, the post
was labeled as Sponsored. Finally, in the personalized ad
plus training condition, a text was displayed before participants viewed the personalized ad. The text explained
that Facebook targets users with personalized ads based on
their demographic information and online behaviors (the
stimulus material is available upon request from the authors).b At the end of the experiment, participants were debriefed and thanked. Participants received research credits
Persuasion Knowledge was assessed using five items,
â€˜â€˜The post of D66 feels like an ad,â€™â€™ â€˜â€˜The post promotes
D66,â€™â€™ â€˜â€˜D66 paid to post this message,â€™â€™ â€˜â€˜the post of D66 is
an ad,â€™â€™ and â€˜â€˜the post is sponsored by D66,â€™â€™ based on previous work.34 The items were measured on a seven-point
scale (1 = strongly disagree, 7 = strongly agree). The mean
score of these items was used as a measure of persuasion
knowledge (eigenvalue = 2.84, explained variance = 56.78
percent, Cronbachâ€™s a = 0.81; M = 5.98, SD = 0.91).
The likeliness to engage in electronic Word of Mouth
was measured by asking participants to indicate the likelihood that they would write comments under the post, share
the post with friends, and visit the Facebook page of D66 or
like the post of D66 on Facebook and like the Facebook
page of D66.35 The items were measured on a seven-point
scale (1 = strongly disagree, 7 = strongly agree) and a mean
score of the items was calculated (eigenvalue = 3.26, explained variance = 65.21 percent, Cronbachâ€™s a = .84; M =
1.96, SD = 1.00).
The perceived trustworthiness of the source of the
post was measured using five seven-point semantic differential scales (i.e., undependable/dependable, dishonest/honest,
unreliable/reliable, insincere/sincere, and untrustworthy/
trustworthy) based on previous research.30 Again, a mean
score of the five items was calculated (eigenvalue = 2.84,
explained variance = 56.88 percent, Cronbachâ€™s a = 0.80;
M = 4.60, SD = 0.87).
Several control variables were included. We asked participants whether participants recalled the label, Sponsored
(68.0 percent recalled the label); whether they knew D66
(100.0 percent of all participants said yes); whether they would
vote for D66 (1 = never, 11 = definitely; M = 7.99, SD = 2.46);
whether they visited or followed (liked) the Facebook page
of D66 (15.6 percent of all participants visited the page, 2.5
percent of all participants followed the page); and whether
they own a Facebook profile (99.2 percent of participants
said yes). Randomization checks revealed that the three experimental groups did not significantly differ from each other
regarding these control variables.c
To test for differences in persuasion knowledge (H1), we
used an ANCOVA analysis with the three conditions as the
independent variable, persuasion knowledge as dependent
variable, and likeliness to vote for D66 as control variable.
Results indicated that no significant differences exist in the
activation of persuasion knowledge between the three conditions, F(2, 118) = 0.67, p = 0.512.
In total, 68.0 percent of the participants correctly recalled
the Sponsored label. As previous research repeatedly found
that labels only affect people when they notice it,23 we only
included those people who correctly recalled the label, Sponsored (N= 83). We ran the same ANCOVA with this subsample, and the results showed a significant effect on persuasion
knowledge. Participants in the personalized ad condition
(M = 6.29, SD = 0.71) and the personalized ad with training condition (M = 6.36, SD = 0.64) had higher levels of
FIG. 1. Proposed mediation model, in which the
nature (regular post or
personalized ad) and the
information provided about
its nature (training or not) of
a Facebook post sent by a
political party generate
different levels of persuasion
knowledge, which consequently affects responses to
the post and source.
POLITICAL MICROTARGETING 369
persuasion knowledge than participants in the regular Facebook post condition (M = 5.88, SD = 0.94; respectively, p =
0.088 and p = 0.041), F(2, 79) = 3.87, p = 0.025, gp
2 = 0.089.
In other words, participants were more likely to understand
that the Facebook post was advertising when it included
the Sponsored label compared with the regular Facebook post
(Table 1). Unlike our expectation in H1, adding a text explaining the usage of personal data did not lead to higher
levels of persuasion knowledge. H1 was thus partly supported.
To test H2, a mediation analysis was conducted with the
SPSS macro PROCESS (Model 4) using 1,000 bootstrap
samples to estimate the indirect effects.36 The mediation
analyses were run thrice with one dummy variable as the
independent variable, the other one as covariate, and the last
one as the reference category, and separately for each dependent variable (Table 2). With regard to source trustworthiness (H2a), we found no significant mediation (or indirect)
effect. This means that H2a was not supported. Interestingly,
results show that the personalized ad negatively affects
eWOM through persuasion knowledge. When comparing
the personalized ad condition with the regular Facebook
post condition (with the personalized ad with training condition and intention to vote for D66 as control variables), we
found a significant indirect effect (indirect effect = -0.17,
SE = 0.11, 95% BCBCI [-0.46, -0.02]). Exposure to a personalized ad activated persuasion knowledge (b = 0.47,
p = 0.030), decreasing the intention to engage in eWOM
(b = -0.36, p = 0.005), compared with the same post when it
was not advertising.
We found the same indirect effect for exposure to the
personalized ad with training, indirect effect = -0.19, SE=
0.10, 95% BCBCI [-0.48, -0.04]. Compared with the regular
Facebook post, the personalized ad with training activated
persuasion knowledge (b = 0.52, p = 0.014), decreasing the
likelihood to engage in eWOM (b = -0.36, p = 0.005).
We found no significant indirect effects comparing the
personalized ad condition with the personalized ad with
training condition. This indicates that the training explaining
the usage of personal data did not activate higher levels of
persuasion knowledge among participants compared with
seeing only the Sponsored label (Table 2) and thus did not
alter the responses to the ad. H2b was thus partly supported.
Discussion and Conclusion
This is one of the first studies focusing on online political
microtargeting and shows some interesting findings about
this novel and rarely studied phenomenon. In sum, exposure
to a political personalized ad on Facebook activated votersâ€™
persuasion knowledge compared with a regular Facebook
post. However, in line with previous work,20 this effect only
occurred when people noticed the label denoting it as
Sponsored. Interestingly, 32 percent of the participants did
not recall this difference between the regular Facebook post
and that same post as a personalized ad. This means that a
large group of Facebook users does not appear to notice the
label that distinguishes regular posts from commercial ones,
making this label not effective for these people. The lack of
attention to the label may be due to the fact that people are
just paying attention to the Facebook post itself and that the
label is too small to catch attention. More research is needed
to examine the antecedents and effects of peopleâ€™s attention
to such labels.
However, once people did notice the label, this led to a
better understanding of the fact that the Facebook post was
advertising sent by a political party. As a consequence of this
activation of persuasion knowledge, voters were less likely
to distribute and share the Facebook post. The perceived
Table 1. Descriptive Statistics
for the Experimental Conditions
5.88 (0.94) 6.29 (0.71) 6.36 (0.64)
4.54 (1.08) 4.46 (0.62) 4.85 (1.01)
eWOM 1.92 (1.08) 2.11 (1.06) 1.94 (0.91)
Mean scores with standard deviations between parentheses. All
scores based on seven-point scales, N= 83.
eWOM, electronic word of mouth.
Table 2. The Indirect Effect of Personalized Online Political Advertising on eWOM
and Source Trustworthiness Through Persuasion Knowledge
Variable Indirect effect SE
Personalized ad versus regular Facebook post
Trustworthiness through PK 0.00 0.06 -0.12 0.12
eWOM through PK -0.17 0.11 -0.46 -0.02
Personalized ad with training versus regular Facebook post
Trustworthiness through PK 0.00 0.06 -0.10 0.13
eWOM through PK -0.19 0.10 -0.48 -0.04
Personalized ad vs. personalized ad with training
Trustworthiness through PK 0.00 0.02 -0.04 0.04
eWOM through PK -0.02 0.07 -0.24 0.09
BCBCI, bias-corrected bootstrap confidence interval; PK, persuasion knowledge; LL, lower limit; SE, standard error; UL, upper limit.
370 KRUIKEMEIER ET AL.
trustworthiness of the political party that disseminated the
Facebook post did not appear to be affected.
Moreover, a short training that informed citizens about the
practice of personalized advertising did not increase the use
of persuasion knowledge, nor did it change eWOM or source
trustworthiness. This means that voters do respond differently to a Facebook post that is personalized advertising
compared with the same post when it is not labeled as advertising. Information about the usage of personal information to target this ad did not increase these effects.
These findings have theoretical implications. First, it demonstrates the importance of persuasion knowledge as the
underlying mechanism that explains citizensâ€™ responses to
political Facebook posts. Second, although some have expressed their doubts about the relevance of the ELM in the
digital world,37 our study shows that the theory is still applicable to modern ways of advertising. The ELM proves to
be a valuable theory to explain our findings. Specifically,
following the ELM, the label, Sponsored, in the Facebook
postâ€”a warning that indicates that it is a personalized adâ€”
might induce resistance because it evokes more biased
processing.28 However, as we did not measure how people
actually processed the message, further research could advance our study by doing this.
Furthermore, the findings of our study have implications
for those interested in using personalized advertising on social media. Our study suggests that personalized advertising
has its challenges. Citizens appear to resist personalized
content when they notice a Sponsored label, and in turn, they
are less likely to share personalized ads with others. In other
words, citizens seem to understand the techniques that are
used on Facebook and this can generate resistance toward the
ad. Thus, what appears to be an opportunityâ€”personalizing
ads to reach possible votersâ€”might not always be beneficial
in practice. However, this study is the first step in studying
a rather novel phenomenon. Future work should examine whether personalizing ads also leads to more positive
implications, such as mobilizing citizens to vote, or other
negative implications, such as political content avoidance.
With regard to the normative debate about the implications of personalized advertising,11 one could argue that the
fact that citizens appear to withstand personalized advertising might have positive implications. Citizens seem to be
able to make a distinction between regular Facebook posts
and those that are personalized ads. Additional training does
not seem to be necessary. Moreover, given the high scores on
the measure of persuasion knowledge, citizens do seem to
understand that political ads on Facebook are often persuasive messages paid by the party. This suggests that persuasion knowledge in the context of social media advertising is
already quite developed. However, further research is needed
to fully understand how developed peopleâ€™s persuasion
knowledge about personalized advertising on social media
a. The party, D66, was chosen because the party can be
placed in the middle of the political spectrum (not left-wing
b. To examine whether people would perceive the personalized ad as such, we conducted a pilot study among a
convenience sample (N= 51). In this pilot study, we found
that in the personalized ad condition, 43.8 percent of the
participants recalled seeing the label, sponsored, and in the
personalized ad with training condition, 66.7 percent of the
participants recalled seeing the label, Sponsored. This finding is in line with previous research that shows that people
often do not see a label that indicates that a social media post
is paid for.20,25 The final questionnaire also included a
question that measured whether participants recalled the label, Sponsored, correctly.
c. Specifically, the three experimental groups did not
significantly differ from each other regarding the likeliness to
vote for D66, F(2, 119) = 2.05, p = 0.134; visiting the D66
Facebook page, X2
(2) = 1.36, p = 0.506; following D66 on
(2) = 0.50, p = 0.357; owning a Facebook account, X2
(2) = 1.99, p = 0.369; gender, X2
(2) = 0.25, p = 0.882;
and age, F(2, 119) = 1.34, p = 0.265.
Author Disclosure Statement
No competing financial interests exist.
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Address correspondence to:
Dr. Sanne Kruikemeier
Amsterdam School of Communication Research (ASCoR)
University of Amsterdam
PO Box 15793
1001 NG Amsterdam
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