Sunlight Foundation is a nonpartisan nonprofit organization. We depend on the generosity of our supporters to continue our work. With your help, we can double down on our efforts to ensure government is open and accountable.
We depend on the generosityof our supporters
Take a stand for transparency:
donate to the Sunlight Foundation today!
Ted Cruz’s (R-TX) mission to shutter the government in one fell swoop may be (temporarily) over, but that doesn’t mean he’s stopped trying to handcuff federal agencies in an effort to impose his own agenda on their work. His most recent effort involves preventing a Senate vote on the nomination of Tom Wheeler for FCC chairman because he wants to get Wheeler’s commitment that he will not use the FCC’s regulatory authority to require disclosure of the dark money behind political ads.
In a statement, Senator Cruz’s office announced, “Yes, the Senator is holding the nominee until he gets answers to his questions regarding Mr. Wheeler’s views on whether the FCC has the authority or intent to implement the requirements of the failed Congressional DISCLOSE Act. Mr. Wheeler had previously declined to give specific answers, but as he’s now expressed his readiness to revisit the Senator’s questions, the Senator hopes to communicate with him soon.”
Good luck to Mr. Wheeler during that conversation.
With the end of the 2012 election season, so too comes the conclusion of a seemingly infinite number of campaign advertisements. Of course, there is a finite number of political ads that ran this cycle and we at Ad Hawk have placed that figure at more than 4,000. That number is based on our work gathering and identifying the ads in order to help the public learn more about the sources of funding behind them.
The Ad Hawk project collected and indexed advertisements released by campaigns in order to inform voters about the ads’ sponsors and funding sources. As a result, we have amassed a comprehensive and searchable database of this year's presidential, congressional and third-party advertisements focused on federal issues and candidates.
Every day, Ad Hawk scans more than 300 of public feeds associated with campaigns and committees. Each time one of those organizations posts a new video, we determine if it is an ad, and if so, we mark it in our database. So far, we’ve considered nearly 8,000 videos, marking more than half as ads. As the election approaches, we’ve found that organizations are releasing ads at an accelerating rate. It’s enough to keep us from turning on the television in our free time.
We knew we were collecting a lot, but one question still nagged at us: were we collecting enough? It's difficult to estimate how extensive our coverage is, since there is no publicly available record of the advertisements that are published during a campaign season. We have noticed, however, that the Ad Hawk system's collection rate seems to be consistent with the recentexplosionin outside spending in the push before election day.
Using an environment for statistical computing called “R,” we performed a cross-correlation (R's ccf() function) of ads released and outside spending to find out exactly how well the correlate. We also checked to see if there is a lag between spending and ad releases, to account for the possibility that ads come out days after funds are spent. As it turned out, though, spending and ad releases had nearly no lag difference.
This seems to support the notion that money spent by outside groups is immediately seen in the form of new messages being pushed to the public. This, we believe, demonstrates the importance of projects like Ad Hawk and Political Ad Sleuth, which try to show the money trail between advertisements and the people, organizations, and interests behind them. All the more reason, we would argue, for the FCC to require records of advertising contracts signed between media outlets and committees immediately available to the public online and in machine readable format.
Within 60 days of an election, every dollar spent by a candidate has the same television advertising buying power as $1.63 from any non-candidate source, according to a new analysis of advertisement contracts in the Las Vegas media market. During this period, FCC regulations mandate that TV stations charge candidates “no more per unit than the station charges its most favorite commercial advertisers” for the same ad time. As it turns out, this preferred status nets candidates a significant discount over super PACs, dark money organizations and party committees.
According to this new data—collected through Sunlight’s Political Ad Sleuth—candidates enjoy an average markdown of $364 off their typical $946 price tag for a thirty second spot, which constitutes a 38.5 percent price cut.
This helps to explain why, as Ezra Klein has pointed out, ads from Obama and his allies have been more frequent than ads from Romney and his allies. Because more money on the Republican side has been flowing into the election through super PACs and other outside groups, the GOP’s purchasing power is diminished.
Of the 50 TV advertising markets where stations have been putting political ad files online since Aug. 2, Las Vegas has the most disclosures on Political Ad Sleuth, with more than 2,300 filings. If you just look at Senate races, though, the No. 1 spot goes to Pennsylvania, which has Sen. Bob Casey, Jr. (D) facing challenger Tom Smith.
Political Ad Sleuth, a project of the Sunlight Foundation and Free Press, is just one week old and already the amount of political ad filings on TV are hitting record numbers. Be sure to check out how your local media market ranks.
If you visit adhawk.sunlightfoundation.com you'll see a number of new features that make it the go-to resource for learning about and searching for political ads. In the upper right corner you can now take advantage of ElasticSearch that allows you to find ads by the title name or sponsor. You can also narrow your search results by sponsor name, type of funder or party affiliation. This is especially helpful when you browse the database of more than 2,300 ads when searching for a commonly used term like "freedom" or "Obama."
Another exciting addition is a glossary of terms commonly seen throughout the app and used when discussing campaigns. Little question mark buttons appear next to defined terms whenever they appear throughout the app for quick reference. From 501(c) Organizations to Dark Money and Independent Expenditures to Super PACs, our new glossary gives an at-a-glance reminder on the players and tactics attempting to influence your vote this election.
Other minor additions include improvements to social sharing and honing the technology for pairing audio with ads. We've received great feedback from the community and are always looking for more, get in touch with us here. Thanks for checking out Ad Hawk and we look forward to adding more features and ads as the campaign season heats up.
Ad Hawk is our new iPhone and Android app that empowers you to identify political ads as they air and immediately learn about the secretive groups spending money to influence your vote. Simply activate the app on your phone when you hear a political ad on TV or radio and we'll return results within seconds. We paired powerful open-source audio fingerprinting technology to work in concert with our comprehensive data on campaign finance to bring you the best way to stay informed while you endure the onslaught of ads throughout the 2012 election season.
Ad Hawk listens to arbitrary audio coming into your mobile phone when you touch "Identify this Ad" and creates a short digital fingerprint to compare against the database of hundreds of political ads we collect. If the audio fingerprint finds a match, we send you the information about the sponsor of the ad and other details such as:
money received or spent
where the ad is on the air
media reports on the political group or ad
places to learn more information
As the 2012 election season heats up, we'll be tirelessly expanding our database and incorporating more contextual information to give you the best tool to illuminate those clouding the airwaves.
Sunlight identifies new ads by monitoring media reports and the YouTube channels of political groups and campaigns. We research and pair these new ads with Federal Communications Commission data on ad spending, Federal Election Commission data on political contributions, press releases about ad buys and relevant news articles. We collect anonymized location data if users authorize us and hope to better map where ads are appearing around the country.
The idea behind Ad Hawk started at a Philadelphia’s Hacks/Hackers meetup, and the project began at the Random Hacks of Kindness hackathon in December 2011. After a few months of follow-up work, the technology eventually found a home at the Sunlight Foundation for further development and publication. Part of the audio technology is powered by Echoprint, an open source music fingerprint and resolving framework, created and made available by the good folks at The Echo Nest.
We will update the database every day and deliver improvements to the app on an ad hoc basis so please let us know what you think!
The Sunlight Foundation sent a letter to the FCC urging them to stay strong and adopt transparency rules that would require broadcasters to place their entire "political file" online, rather than bowing to industry demands that a redacted, aggregated version be made available on the Web.
Under the law, broadcasters are required to make public their political file, information including which groups are buying political ads, which candidates the ads support and when and where the ads aired. But for too long, "public" has meant the information has been buried in the file cabinets in the offices of the local broadcasters. Yes, that's right, in this day of the Internet, if I want to access public information about who is running political ads in the state where grew up, I have to get on a plane to find out.
The FCC is poised to change that. Unfortunately, it seems the broadcasters, ever wary of making anything public, are suggesting that the FCC adopt a bifurcated system where the only information available online would be redacted and aggregated. The detailed information, you know, the stuff that is actually meaningful, would remain on paper, hidden from public view, in a file cabinet somewhere.
Sunlight hopes the FCC will see the broadcasters' proposal for what it is, a transparent (pardon the pun) effort to keep the public in the dark about who is paying for our elections.
Update: There is no doubt the broadcasters have used all the weapons in their arsenal to convince the FCC to adopt weak disclosure rules. The week before the FCC is scheduled to decide a matter, all contacts with the Commission are prohibited under the FCC's "Sunshine Rule." The Sunshine period for the broadcast rule decision begins today, as the issue is supposed to be decided on the 27th. Conveniently, the NAB held their convention from April 14-19 in Las Vegas, and based on FCC ex parte disclosure reports, the broadcasters took the opportunity to make their case to the commissioners in Sin City, getting the last word before the Sunshine Period begins. Not that we are complaining. It's great that there is such complete disclosure on the FCC's site. (We only wish Congress would do the same.)
Additionally, in a report today, ProPublic points out the irony of big news outlets that normally demand transparency in this case fighting for secrecy. There's no question the FCC Commissioners will have gotten the message against transparency loud and clear. We hope they have also heard us.
Xi Jinping, the vice president and presumptive next president of China, today visits the White House on a four-day tour of the United States. While some hope the trip will help ease tensions between the two nations, China is an increasingly popular boogeyman on the campaign trail here, especially in political attack ads.
You've probably seen the controversial ad that Senate candidate Pete Hoekstra aired in Michigan during the Super Bowl.
The spot cost Hoekstra's campaign $144,000 and helped his opponent Debbie Stabenow raise $150,000 in the week after it ran.
But Hoekstra's ad is hardly alone recently in stoking fears of China.
Mark Amodei of Nevada, running for Congress in a special election last year, cut an ad claiming that raising the debt ceiling so empowers China that to do so is to "risk our independence." A fictional, triumphant Chinese news report shows the People's Liberation Army marching in front of the U.S. Capitol as a joyous choir sings. "It's not too late to stop this nightmare," Amodei says.
In September he won election with 58% of the vote.
And it's not just local campaigns using such tactics. In a number of 2010 commercials, the National Republican Campaign Committee equated support for the stimulus to favoring Chinese interests over American ones. "Staggering debt here, sending jobs to China. Who is he working for?" the narrator intones in ads against Chris Carney and Zack Space.
In a spot funded by the NRCC and approved by candidate Spike Maynard, images of "Made in China" labels flash ominously across the screen before Maynard's opponent Rep. Nick Rahall is accused of voting "to help foreign companies create Chinese jobs making windmills."
Another NRCC ad asks "Is Baron Hill Running for Congress in Indiana, or China?"
Of course, this xenophobic aesthetic is not limited to Republicans. An ad the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee ran against Sen. Pat Toomey in 2010 sounded remarkably similar. "Maybe he ought to run for Senate ... in China," its narrator declares. Lots of Chinese flags accompanied by gong sounds are thrown in for good measure.
In another equally unsubtle DCCC ad against Toomey, "He's not for you. :(" pops out of a fortune cookie.
The Democratic National Committee put out a video in 2010 accusing Karl Rove and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce of "stealing our democracy" with "millions from secret donors." "It appears they've even taken secret foreign money to influence our elections. It's incredible!" the narrator cries over an image of Chinese yuan stacking up. No evidence is cited for this claim.
And a 2010 ad from MoveOn.org "connects the dots" from Rep. Mark Kirk to the Chamber of Commerce directly to China, Russia and India. "Exactly who is Mark Kirk working for?" the ad asks, indignant. Just like theNRCC.
The classic of the genre, though, may be from the 501(c)(3) Citizens Against Government Waste. In the widely-viewed 2010 ad, a Chinese professor in a high-tech classroom from the year 2030 explains how America "failed" like other great nations. "Of course, we owned most of their debt ..." he says with a laugh, "so now they work for us."
Today the Sunlight Foundation submitted comments encouraging the FCC to quickly create a centralized, publicly accessible database of information about the political ads buys. The current system, in which valuable information about political ads is located in the file cabinets of broadcasters across the country, prevents the information from being shared, analyzed or understood. To truly make the most use of the data, information from broadcasters’ political files should be available to the public on a centralized, searchable, sortable database on the FCC’s website.
As we noted previously, broadcasters will likely complain loudly that online filing requirements will be too burdensome. The FCC should recognize that such a complaint is disingenuous at best. Most data regarding broadcast ads is already submitted in an electronic format. Electronic filing would make it easier to ensure information is complete, timely and publicly available. Moreover, broadcasters have a responsibility to serve the needs of the public in exchange for the use of the public spectrum. Making public information about who is placing and paying for the political ads people are forced to watch is fundamental to serving those needs. Finally, the information about political advertising is already supposed to be public. But in the 21st Century, burying paper in filing cabinets at broadcasters’ offices across the country is anything but public. Public means online.
It is currently too easy to mislead the public about the source of money behind a political ad. A searchable FCC database of ad buys would enable the public to learn who is behind any given political advertisement and allow for big-picture analysis about the money being spent to influence our elections. We applaud the FCC for opening this rulemaking and hope it adopts meaningful rules to create a more transparent system of political advertising.
With your help, we're building a resource to track campaign spending this election season, and we're excited that so many of you have decided to be involved. Sunlight CAM has only been live for a week, and already you've submitted over 80 ads, with more added each day from all across the country and the aisle.
When you take the three easy steps to report an ad that you saw on television or the Internet or that you've heard over the radio, you provide reporters, bloggers and your peers access to information about who's trying to influence your votes. Now that the DISCLOSE Act has failed in the Senate for the second time, it's more important than ever that we work together to watchdog Washington. The more information you provide about the ads you see or hear, the more information we can dig up about the ad's sponsor.
We're already using the data you've picked up on: Earlier this week, my colleague Lindsay took at look at some of the data you've provided and found some interesting results. Researching one ad by the 60 Plus Association revealed that the organization spent almost half a million dollars of PhRMA-backed money against Pennsylvania Representative Paul Kanjorski in September alone (!).
As we head into the thick of political advertising battles that mark October (a.k.a. The Final Countdown), we urge you to keep your ears and eyes open and to keep those reports coming.