Researchers, journalists, and anyone curious can see a limited view of Facebook’s advertising system using the Facebook Ad Library. This system allows you to search all “issue, electoral, or political” ads. You can search both active and historical ads. Facebook promises to keep these ads available to review for seven years.
This system was set up to provide transparency about political advertising, so ads in other categories are much more limited. You can’t search them directly, and the historical ads aren’t available at all. Active ads can be seen if you seek out a particular Facebook page. This is less helpful and it’s the bare minimum Facebook can do while allowing political monitors and researchers to see and report running ads that improperly do not have political disclaimers. Facebook is clearly trying to provide the least access possible while allowing reporting and monitoring of “dark posts” and stealthy political advertising.
It’s not a robust competitive business research tool, but it’s free and there is some value for business research. You can track your local competition’s active ads even when you are not included in the targeting.
It’s also interesting to see spending patterns by your local government or law enforcement. For example, Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office in Birmingham, Alabama has spent over $11,000 on advertising in the past 18 months. Some of those ads ran without disclaimers, and nearly half were misspelled “Jefferson Country”. That might be interesting to someone. I also found out that the Broward County, Florida Sheriff’s Office spent somewhere between $100 and $499 to promote a press release about a disagreement between the Sheriff’s Office and union officials. Facebook only supplies spending ranges, not the exact advertising expense.
Do you have questions about an organization’s Facebook advertising? It’s not perfect, but it’s a good place to start digging and you don’t need a Facebook account to get started.