How Journalists Are Using the Political TV Ad Archive To Go Deeper With Election Coverage

    by Nancy Watzman
    June 2, 2016
    Photo by flash.pro on Flickr and used here with Creative Commons license.

    The following piece is a guest post from Nancy Watzman at Political TV Ad Archive. Guest posts do not necessarily reflect the opinions of this publication. Read more about MediaShift guest posts here.

    Last November, in a piece for MediaShift on the about-to-launch Political TV Ad Archive, a project of the Internet Archive using innovative technology to track political ads in the 2016 elections, I posed the following question:

    What percentage of total airtime for presidential political TV ads airing in Iowa and New Hampshire will be paid for by dark money groups?


    1. All of it.
    2. None of it.
    3. Get the data to answer this question in March 2016.

    It’s now May 2016, and after tracking television ads in more than 20 markets in 11 key primary states, I now have the answer to that question. Drumroll…

    Answer: A lot closer to 2 than to 1. Fewer than one percent of the political ads focused on candidates aired in major TV markets in the weeks leading up to the Iowa and New Hampshire contests were sponsored by non-profit, or “dark money” groups.


    Dark money” refers to organizations that sponsor political ads that do not reveal their donors to the public. Most dark money is spent by non-profit 501(c)4 “social welfare” organizations, such as Americans for Prosperity and VoteVets.org.

    While dark money is definitely a feature of the 2016 elections, and is growing fast, back in those heady weeks before the Iowa and New Hampshire contests, when GOP contenders still crowded debate podiums and few suspected how far Bernie Sanders’ campaign for the Democratic nomination would go, just a few dark-money-fueled ads were playing on TV sets in Iowa and New Hampshire.

    The dark money ad that got the most journalistic scrutiny was an attack ad against John Kasich sponsored by the American Future Fund. The group is described by the Center for Public Integrity as a “conservative nonprofit linked to the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch.” The ad is a take down of Kasich’s record as Ohio governor, accusing him of raising taxes and labeling him as an “Not a conservative. Not even a moderate. An Obama Republican.” The ad aired more than 120 times in New Hampshire.

    All three of our national fact checking partners faulted the ad for misrepresenting Kasich’s record. PolitiFact gave it a “false” rating. The Washington Post’s Fact Checker gave it three Pinocchios.  FactCheck.org reported that the “ad only tells half the story.”

    Was the ad effective? We will let political scientists sort that question out. We do know that, to paraphrase Richard Nixon, we don’t have John Kasich to kick around anymore. He came in a distant second to Donald Trump in that race.

    We also know that the Political TV Ad Archive allows journalists and the public the opportunity to ask and answer that question — “How active are dark money groups in the 2016 political ad wars?” But also: Are dark money ads accurate?

    Data creates context, context creates power

    Ferreting out dark money spenders is only one of the many features of the Political TV Ad Archive. As of May 26, 2016, we’ve catalogued 1,372 ads; of these, 689 aired a total of 174,000 times in the markets we tracked. Each one of these ads gets its own page, where people can view the ad, find an embed code for incorporating on websites and social media, and drill down to see exactly when and where ads aired in context.

    All of our metadata — detailed information on where ads aired, when, on what TV programs, and more — is free and downloadable with a few clicks of the mouse. There is no other unpaid source where journalists can get this type of information in an easy-to-analyze format. These data have already been plumbed by data journalists and others to create ways of looking at political advertising we never could have imagined.

    Their creative use of the information adds much needed context and commentary to the political messages bombarding voters in what has become a particularly confounding election season. It’s a fact of American life that voters in early voting primary states see a huge onslaught of political ads before they go to the polls. But, does a voter in Iowa know what voters in New Hampshire are experiencing? And do either the Iowa or New Hampshire voters know what politicians are promising in South Carolina?

    Journalists have used Political TV Ad Archive data to explain to voters not just what they are seeing, but why. And in doing so, they hand power back to the voters, who are better informed about how candidates are trying to persuade them. Some examples:

    Farai Chideya of FiveThirtyEight and Kate Stohr of Fusion delved into data on anti-Trump ads airing ahead of the Florida primary to show how the monied opposition to him was growing. However, Trump went on to win handily, despite the onslaught.

    The Economist mashed up data about airings in Iowa and New Hampshire with polling data and asked the question: Does political advertising work? The answer—”a bit of MEH” (or, “minimal-effects hypothesis”)—in other words, voters are persuaded, but just the littlest bit.

    Nick Niedzwiadek plumbed the collection when writing about political ad gaffes for The Wall Street Journal. Nadja Popovich of The Guardian graphed Bernie Sanders’s surge in ad airings in Nevada, ahead of the contest there, explaining how and when he’d pulled ahead of Clinton in the ad wars.

    William La Jeunesse of Fox News reported on negative ads here. Philip Bump of the Washington Post used gifs to illustrate just how painful it was to be a TV-watching voter in South Carolina in the lead up to the primary there. He also published this story, which allows readers to choose TV shows they like, and then see which campaigns are likely to target them based on their viewing habits.

    Andrew McGill, a senior associate editor for the Atlantic, created an old-style video game, where the viewer uses the space key on a computer keyboard to try to dodge all the ads that aired on Iowa airwaves ahead of the caucuses there.

    via GIPHY

    From Political TV Ad Archive, to Time to… Jimmy Fallon

    Sometimes comedy can provide insights in a way that news reporting can’t. Time reporters Chris Wilson and Pratheek Rebala created this tool to find which TV programs were favored by which candidates for advertising.

    One of their findings: Ted Cruz advertised heavily on The Sound of Music Live!

    That data tidbit was picked up by Jimmy Fallon, which inspired him to produce this bit. 

    While the primary season is all but over, the Political TV Ad Archive lives on, preserving the 2016 political TV ads from the primaries for posterity. Meanwhile, we are making plans for the conventions and beyond, to the general elections. We’ll be back tracking political ads in key swing states, many of which feature heavily contested Senate races, whose ads we’ll also capture.

    Stay tuned.

    Nancy Watzman manages editorial content and relationships for the Television Archive. She’s worked for a number of political watchdog and reform organizations, including the Sunlight Foundation, Every Voice, the Center for Responsive Politics (opensecrets.org), and the Center for Public Integrity. Nancy is co-author, with Micah Sifry, of Is That a Politician in Your Pocket? Washington on $2 Million a Day (John Wiley & Sons, 2004). She has also contributed to The Buying of the Congress (Avon Books, 1998), Harper’s Magazine, The Nation, The New Republic, and The Washington Monthly.

    Tagged: election coverage Political Ad Archive political ads politics

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