Five takeaways on Trump’s 2020 Facebook ad strategy

Will Trump follow a similar playbook in the 2024 presidential race?

With Meta’s announcement last month that it would allow former President Donald Trump back on the platform, we dug into Ad Observatory data to remember what made Trump’s ad strategy on Facebook and Instagram unique. Trump has yet to make a major investment in political ads since his reinstatement. However, with Nikki Haley’s recent announcement that she is running for president in 2024, the Trump campaign began running a few ads.

Will Trump’s 2024 strategy mirror his approach in 2020? Here are five trends we’ll be watching.

1) Trump got a better deal from Meta on political ads than Biden did. In the 2020 general election period, Trump spent $35 million on some 300,000 ads to Biden’s $101 million on 77,000 political ads on Facebook and Instagram. Trump edged out Biden in total impressions — 2.5 billion to 2.3 billion. In other words, Trump spent less, purchased more ads, and got on users’ screens more often — a phenomenon first reported by Jeremy Merrill for The Markup in October 2022, using Ad Observatory data. This amounted to 3 times the impression per dollar spent on ads.

2) Cheaper ads helped Trump better focus on high performing ads. Both Trump and Biden poured large sums of money in a select few ads. But Trump ran more low-cost ads, and his median ad spend was 1/14th of Biden’s: $1.5 vs $20.1. This helped his campaign place micro-bets on different ad types to test which would receive higher levels of engagement, to later spend more heavily on them.

3) Trump’s ad strategy focused on getting people to show up and to spend money. Trump led spending on ads urging users to Show Up, or ads that urge people to take action, such as voting or attending rallies. He led impressions in Show Up, Buy — aka purchase merchandise such as hats and mugs, and Donation ads.

4) Compared to Biden, Trump spent less on persuading people about issues. Biden spent 12 times more as a proportion of total spending on connecting with users — asking them to sign up for newsletters, for example; and four times more on persuading them on specific issues such as jobs and the environment.

5) Trump used micro-targeting to spread fear-stoking messaging. This ad, targeted at married suburban women in Maine, was part of a campaign to tell a particular group that Joe Biden was a threat to them. It was designed to scare a suburban, married, female audience. Such messaging can be thought of as a “social trust attack,” designed to erode confidence in people and institutions embedded in an appeal to affinity.

We’ll be watching what Trump, along with other 2024 presidential candidates do next. William Faulkner wrote that “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Technology changes; the popularity of social media platforms ebbs and flows; and issues grabbing the attention of the public change. But it’s likely that Trump, who has built his success on populist, fear-focused messaging, will continue in a similar vein, even if he switches up tactics.


This analysis draws from Ad Observatory data during the 2020 general election period from August 27, 2020 (the end of the party conventions) to November 3, 2020 (Election Day). Ad Observatory is a tool providing access to explore political advertising across Meta, including Facebook and Instagram. Search by keywords, a topic, sponsor, or region to see an analysis on spend, messaging trends, and more.

Cybersecurity for Democracy is a research-based effort to expose online threats to our social fabric — and recommend how to counter them. We are part of the Center for Cybersecurity at NYU.

Sign up for our newsletter.

Follow us on Twitter: @cyber4democracy.



Cybersecurity for Democracy ( is a research-based effort to expose online threats to our social fabric — and recommend how to counter them. We are part of the Center for Cybersecurity at NYU.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store