Buying Attention, On and Offline

April 9, 2024
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⬅ Back to: Engagement and Abuse on Toronto's Digital Campaign Trail: The 2023 Toronto Mayoral By-election Report

Xiao Hua Gong spent a lot on advertising, and though those expenses didn’t translate into success at the polls, it showcased how big campaign budgets alone can reach into communities — sometimes in unexpected ways.

Xiao Hua Gong didn’t come close to being elected mayor of Toronto, but he was able to reach a massive audience (and reach a new generation of voters) through his expensive advertising strategy.

Throwing money at a campaign doesn’t ensure victory or even significant electoral success, but it’s important to consider the advantages that candidates with extensive budgets may have against other candidates who don’t have the same access to cash — and how increased visibility based on advertising can affect the digital campaign trail and electoral outcomes. 

To run a successful mayoral campaign, a candidate needs to have time to dedicate to running their campaign, access to the capital needed to get a campaign off the ground, and the connections to successfully fundraise so that they can adequately advertise. In a city the size of Toronto, this requires a substantial amount of capital. Ana Bailão ran the most expensive campaign of any candidate, spending over $2.1 million on her campaign. Three other candidates (Chow, Matlow, and Saunders) spent around or over $1 million each, and eight candidates spent over $250,000 each. Having the social and financial capital to run a campaign is vital to success in an election like this one, which leaves long-time political figures in much more advantageous positions than newer candidates, as they can leverage their existing public image and donor networks.

But attention, including social media attention, can also be bought, as fringe candidate Xiao Hua Gong proved in this election. 

Gong, who also goes by Edward Gong, is a business and media mogul who ran in the Toronto by-election, but is perhaps most known for his legal battles. After being investigated for running a pyramid scheme in 2021, Gong forfeited over $68 million to the New Zealand government, the largest forfeiture in the country’s history. At the time of publication, he is suing the Ontario Securities Commission

On the afternoon of election day, CIVIX, a non-profit dedicated to strengthening democracy through civic education, held a youth vote, where elementary and secondary students in Toronto cast a mock vote for mayor. Just as in the actual election, Olivia Chow came first with 23.4% of the vote. But the runner-up of the youth vote differed wildly from the real outcome — in close second was Gong, who received a whopping 21.1% of the vote.

Gong didn’t perform nearly as well in the actual election. He actually received a similar number of votes in the mock student vote (which had a total 11,934 counted ballots) as he did in the actual election (over 700,000 votes cast). Gong received just over 2,500 votes in the student vote, while in the actual election, Gong received 2,983 votes, amounting to 0.4% of all ballots.

His limited success in the election aside, this fringe candidate permeated the consciousness of Toronto’s youth — no small feat. He did this with a massive advertising budget; his name, face, and the pledge that he was “[h]ere to rescue Toronto” were emblazoned across his many campaign signs, alongside billboards, bus ads, and even a spot on a screen at Yonge-Dundas Square downtown. 

From the ground in Toronto, it was impossible to miss Gong’s campaign. He wasn’t included in major debates and most Torontonian voters probably couldn’t describe his policy agenda, but just looking at visibility, one could have assumed that he was a front-runner based on his massive advertising campaign.

The overabundance of Gong-related advertising in the physical realm led to the spread of jokes and memes online. Toronto youth seemed to enjoy the absurdity of how prevalent Gong’s ads and image were, leading many online to share photos posing with Gong’s signs, make jokes about Gong and his campaign, and even create their own advertising material.

One piece of youth-created advertising that Gong shared on social media (via @gong4mayor on Instagram)

Gong’s fundraising success for his campaign was irregular. Most of his donors gave the maximum donation amount ($2,500) yet Gong reportedly spent $0 on fundraising activities (Bailão spent $420,000 on fundraising, for reference). Gong spent over $120,000 on signs, and about $400,000 on other advertising. His total campaign expenses were just shy of $700,000 (the sixth-most expensive campaign among candidates with reported finances as of January 2024), leaving him having spent a very inefficient $233.67 per vote.

Dollar per vote by candidate (among top eight candidates and Gong)

Nonetheless, Gong’s massive advertising budget made his name and image so ubiquitous that Toronto youth overwhelmingly recognized him as a candidate. Gong’s campaign was far from a success, but his example demonstrates that if candidates put a huge amount of money into advertising, they can infiltrate the public’s consciousness.

While memes about Gong were popular online, as a candidate, he only received 82 tweets during the entire election period, which means he actually attracted less online engagement than the majority of candidates we monitored. Gong was able to “buy” significant attention via his iconic advertising campaign, but this engagement was only surface level — few people actually attempted to interact with Gong online. Torontonians were, by and large, not rallying around Gong as a leadership figure for his policies and performance — his virality was centred around sharing laughs about his ads.

After the election, Gong insisted on a recount of the mayoral results, citing the discrepancy between the outcome of the CIVIX youth vote and the actual election as a reason to question the election’s credibility. The online virality he achieved via his advertisements, and his success in the Toronto youth vote, suggests the need for further exploration of the relationship between visibility, virality, and the civic engagement of youth. But it also demonstrates that a huge campaign budget isn’t enough to see significant, meaningful electoral engagement online. Candidates need to genuinely engage with their communities beyond putting up hundreds of advertisements, and need access to wide-reaching social capital to be part of serious policy discussions and attract substantive civic conversations beyond jokes and memes.

For more information about our research approach see our methodology section and data release

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