December, 2014
Volume 24, Issue 3



Travis N. Ridout

Thomas S. Foley Professor of Government and Public Policy
Washington State University


The study of campaign messages has long been a central part of political communication research.  Arguably, there is no better way to study how candidates present themselves to the public than through the study of their advertising.  For a long time, however, scholars have been hampered by the lack of up-to-date, systematic information describing the volume, placement and content of campaign ads.  But that situation has recently improved with the release of three new sources of data on political advertising in the United States. 

The first of these resources is a website (stations.fcc.gov) developed and maintained by the Federal Communication Commission (FCC).  It includes the political files of all broadcast television stations, which detail ad purchases during the 2014 campaign.  The second is a website developed by the Internet Archive (archive.org/details/PHL) that contains video of all political ads aired on Philadelphia television stations during 2014.  The final resource is a dataset developed and distributed by the Wesleyan Media Project (mediaproject.wesleyan.edu) that contains detailed tracking information and coding of every political ad aired in the U.S. during the 2010 campaigns.

In 2012, the FCC first required television stations in the 50 largest media markets that were affiliated with the ABC, CBS, FOX or NBC networks to post their political files, and that mandate was extended in July of 2014 to all broadcast television stations.  Political files include orders placed by candidates, parties and other groups for ads along with invoices detailing how much was spent on each ad and when it was aired.  One can search or browse the political files by television station, and it is easy to locate the files for particular ad sponsors.  In short, there is a wealth of valuable information, but there remain some drawbacks to using the FCC's website to acquire information on political advertising.  One downside of the website is that the actual orders and invoices are in the form of pdf files, which means that extracting detailed information on how much a sponsor paid for ads or when particular ads aired still must be done by hand.  Another difficulty is that most television stations use different formats for their orders and invoices, which sometimes makes it difficult to decipher exactly how many ads were purchased or the amount spent on those ads.  A final challenge is that sometimes ad contracts are revised, and so it may be difficult to ascertain which ads actually aired.  Still, having online access to stations' political files makes finding information on ad buys considerably easier than just a few years ago when one would need to physically visit each television station to obtain this information.

The Internet Archive's "Philly Political Media Watch Project" adds color to the FCC public files by providing video of each ad aired in that media market in 2014.  It is easy to find and browse ads aired for or against certain candidates and ads aired by particular sponsors, and the videos are high-resolution.  What makes this project even more interesting for scholars of political communication is that the project also provides searchable video of local news broadcasts, allowing one to search for mentions of certain candidates or certain issues.  The project also relies on human coders to digitize the television stations’ political files, making it much easier for researchers to identify how much was spent on a particular ad or by a particular sponsor.  As I write this, however, not all of the FCC files have been transcribed by humans.  Although these advertising data cover only Philadelphia television stations in 2014, this project is conceived of as a pilot, and the organizers hope to learn from this effort and how to scale it up to more media markets in 2016.

The Wesleyan Media Project recently released detailed ad tracking information from the 2010 campaigns, adding to a series of election-year ad tracking databases disseminated by the Wisconsin Advertising Project.  The Wesleyan data cover all political ads aired on broadcast television in all media markets in the United States and detail when and on what television station each ad aired.  These tracking data, collected by the commercial firm, Kantar Media/CMAG, are supplemented by the project's coding of each ad on dozens of characteristics, including its tone and the specific issues mentioned.  Cost estimates at a slightly higher level of aggregation are also provided.  Finally, one can obtain low-resolution video of each ad, allowing researchers to do their own coding.  Data from 2012 congressional races will be available soon, though data from the 2012 presidential race will not be available until the end of 2016.

Of course, these data sources are not perfect.  One disadvantage to all of them is that they do not cover ads aired on local cable television, which is making up an increasing percentage of ad airings these days, though it still constitutes a fairly small percentage of spending on television advertising. 

Complaining aside, those who study political advertising are living in a wonderful time.  There are multiple sources of data on political advertising that are easily accessible.  The FCC website and Internet Archive project excel in allowing one to track which ads just aired, while the Wesleyan Media Project excels in providing comprehensive ad content information that is ready for analysis.

Full disclosure: Along with Erika Franklin Fowler and Michael M. Franz, I serve as co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project.  I am also on the advisory board for the Internet Archive’s Philadelphia project.