The Issue Groups Taking to TV So Far in 2013


While it’s not at the volume of the Fall, our television screens are continuing to experience a case of “political ad fever.” From commercials about gun laws and tax rates to ads about alleged animal cruelty, issue groups took to the airwaves this winter. We reviewed the ad files in Political Ad Sleuth for the first three months of 2013 and mapped the trends among issue group advertisers in the nation’s top 50 media markets.

Sidebar: Don’t let broadcasters shut down FCC political ad database over online ripoff

Broadcast TV stations in 32 media markets aired issue ads from at least 55 advertisers. The political ads were split pretty evenly between a local or national scope, covering 27 different topics. Three markets had a diverse selection of advertisers:

  • Washington, DC — 14 issue groups bought airtime, including four on the topic of gun control, three urging the Senate not to appoint Chuck Hagel and one supporting the U.S. postal service.
  • Milwaukee — 7, with issue ads around candidates for the city’s judge circuit race being the majority of the ones we found.
  • Los Angeles — 6, mostly centered on candidates in the LA mayoral race.

Watch the latest Political Money Weather report to learn about these issue ads or keep reading for more.

Political Ad Sleuth, Sunlight’s real-time database of political ad files, is a resource to track the media buys of issue group advertisers that do not have to be reported to the Federal Election Commission. It’s an especially valuable tool in a non-election year and one that covers all levels of political office. The only major media market with a special congressional election in the past three months? Chicago. We will know the donors of the super PACs active in that race, but information about the 50-some others buying airtime this year is the very definition of dark money.

For example, Political Ad Sleuth data allowed the Sunlight Reporting Group to calculate that dark money groups spent at least $200,000 on TV ads against former Senator Chuck Hagel’s defense secretary nomination. Getting those figures requires reviewing each ad file by-hand, and for this three-month review we did not include any cost tallies.

What we did do, though, was connect each advertiser to the media markets in Ad Sleuth where they purchased airtime. Explore the map below to follow how issue groups used TV airtime to get their message out in 2013. Each place marker represents an advertiser, and the icon associated with it is the ad’s topic. A dollar sign for tax or budget issues, a schoolhouse for education or a tree for ads by an environmental group, for instance. For issue groups in Sunlight’s Ad Hawk database, you can view the ad just by clicking the place marker.

View Issue Ads on TV 2013 in a larger map

Please note, that we only used files labeled “non-candidate issue” for ads set to air from January 1 to March 26, 2013, on Political Ad Sleuth in this review. It covers just the top four broadcasters (ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC) in the top 50 media markets as documented by the FCC’s political ad file database and does not include ads placed on cable television or online. To see the data that powers the map and review the ad files on Political Ad Sleuth, click here.

Think more information about political ad spending should be online? Learn why we want the FCC to join the 21st century and require that all stations post this information online.