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How to Find Political Advertising Data
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Posted On November 2, 2021
A December 2020 Forbes article notes, “In a year that has been extraordinary in every conceivable—and inconceivable—way, it’s not a shock that 2020 would provide an unprecedented level of political advertising spending.” It says that digital political advertising accounted for about 2%–3% of overall campaign ad spending during the 2015–2016 election cycle and increased to 18% by the 2019–2020 election cycle, or about $1.6 billion in digital advertising nationwide. This incredible investment is significant in many ways—and it is certainly an important trend for information professionals.

FINDING POLITICAL AD DATA ACROSS THE INTERNET

Some key resources to help libraries find political advertising data include the following:

  • Duke University Libraries’ AdViews offers access to thousands of historical commercials (1950s–1980s) from the D’Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles advertising agency, whether they are ads created for its clients or acquired by the agency.
  • Infobase’s Films on Demand includes access to high-quality digital programs and video clips from the sciences, social sciences, and health fields.
  • The Museum of the Moving Image’s The Living Room Candidate: Presidential Campaign Commercials 1952-2020 provides an immersive look at how the media has influenced voters over the past half-century with access to more than 300 television commercials.
  • The Internet Archive offers Thumbnails for Presidential Campaign Ads 1960-1976, which link to a video aggregating all of the ads. Each thumbnail represents 1 minute of video.
  • The Political TV Ad Archive has collected and “tracked airings of political ads in key markets the 2016 election cycle.” This source is unique in that it links “to fact-checks by national fact-checking organizations.”

Currently undergoing maintenance, Open Secrets’ Ad Data “contains filings submitted to the Federal Communications Commission by broadcasters around the country. Most radio, TV, satellite and cable providers are required to submit a ‘political file’ to the [Federal Communications Commission]. The documents they contain allow the public to track each station's contracts, correspondence and other filings as they pertain to the candidates, super PACs, dark money groups and other organizations running political and issue ads. OpenSecrets downloads, parses and updates this data on a daily basis.”

In 2018, Google launched Political Advertising in the United States, a searchable database of U.S. political ads intended to offer more transparency in political advertising on Google, YouTube, and their partner sites. It covers ad spending by state, congressional district, and top advertisers and provides links to presidential ads from 2018 to the present. The data is updated daily and is downloadable in CSV format. TechCrunch notes that “while Google’s database does collect candidate ads in the U.S. it does not include issue ads—broader campaigns meant to influence public thought around a specific political topic—nor does it collect state or local ads.”

In a 2020 research article, the authors report that “absent federal online political ad regulation, platforms have enacted their own policies, primarily focused on fact checking and political ad disclosure.” They go on to warn that “big challenges remain [for] understanding political ad activity on platforms due to personalization (ads tailored to potentially small audiences) and scale (both in terms of advertisers, and number of unique ads).”

PROVIDING PUBLIC DATA DOWN TO THE PRECINCT LEVEL

In July 2021, California’s Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) recommended “the creation of a digital archive to track online advertisements promoting candidates for state office” to “help voters, researchers, journalists and others keep better track of campaign spending by state office seekers. … This online archive would be the first of its kind among the 50 states, although similar programs already exist in cities like New York and Los Angeles.” The commission’s 122-page report is detailed and takes the issue of open data in politics to a new level of transparency.

Created by 1974’s California Proposition 9, also known as the Political Reform Act of 1974, the FPPC regulates campaign financing, conflicts of interest, lobbying, and governmental ethics. In suggesting the digital archive, the FPPC notes the huge increases in online political spending. FPPC chairperson Richard C. Miadich explains, “California voters should be able to easily find out who is responsible for each ad they receive and a state-run ad archive would provide this.”

The report shares how the database should be designed: “The emphasis of the ad archive is for it to be easily navigable by voters, allowing them to search for information most relevant to them but also helpful to researchers and others who want to dig deeper into the data.”

BALANCING PUBLIC REGULATION WITH CORPORATE RESPONSIBILITY

An October 2019 research article from the University of Amsterdam looks at “the new phenomenon of platform ad archives” created by social media platforms that promise to “correct for structural informational asymmetries in the online advertising industry, and thereby improve accountability through litigation and through publicity.” However, “formally speaking, the major platform ad archives are self-regulatory measures. … These ‘voluntary’ efforts are therefore best understood as an attempt to stave off binding regulation. … [P]latforms have no immediate commercial incentive to offer transparency in their advertising practices. The role of public regulation, or at least the threat thereof, is therefore essential in understanding the development of ad archives,” the authors assert.

As California’s FPPC notes in its report, “It is not an understatement to say technology is changing at breakneck speed. And this ever-advancing technology is being utilized at an increasing rate by those targeting the public.” Perhaps California’s lead in this area will result in greater transparency and permanent access to key data across the country—and beyond.


Nancy K. Herther is a research consultant and writer who recently retired from a 30-year career in academic libraries.

Email Nancy K. Herther

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