Interest groups scholars often want to track the political involvement of groups through their advertising, but there is no one source that covers the universe of advertising. We report here on three of the most commonly used and comprehensive data sources on group-sponsored advertising in the USA, noting the strengths and weaknesses of each. These data sources are the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Web site, the Wesleyan Media Project, and the Facebook ad library. We focus on both the completeness of the information provided and the ease of accessing the information. We conclude that the strengths of each database differ. FCC data are good for a comprehensive view of a particular state or media market. WMP data are great for information on television spending and content, while the Facebook library, in spite of bugs, provides the best data on digital ad spending and content.
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In the early years of each project, Kantar/CMAG only provided storyboards of the ads.
For example, the WMP posts ICR statistics at the end of each codebook, starting with the 2012 data. In 2016, for the congressional and down-ballot data, the weighted kappa on tone was 0.913, and it was 0.919 for sponsor. Kappas on issue coding vary significantly, but for many high-frequency issue mentions, such as taxes, they are above 0.8.
Another limitation is that each media market in the country is either a “discovery” or a “non-discovery” market. Discovery markets have technology that allows them to compare new sound wave patterns from ads to the existing database of ads. If the ad is new, then it adds it to the database. Markets that do not have this capability can only record instances of ads that are already in the system. See https://mediaproject.wesleyan.edu/discovery-markets/ compiled by WMP’s Laura Baum for further description of the issue.
WMP has focused its coding on presidential, congressional, and gubernatorial ads. Down-ballot ads, for the most part, are not coded.
In November 2019, Twitter announced that it would no longer allow political campaigns to pay for ads on its platform.
This criterion only applies outside of the USA because online advertising inside the USA is unregulated save for entities that must report their spending to the FEC, which are already covered under the first definition.
Note that the public-facing Web-searchable interface and the API operate independently and therefore can return different numbers.
Facebook announced that in November 2019 it would begin testing a fourth product with researchers: a database that would “enable them to quickly download the entire Ad Library, pull daily snapshots and track day-to-day changes.” See https://newsroom.fb.com/news/2019/10/update-on-election-integrity-efforts/ (Accessed October 27, 2019).
Advertising deemed to be political according to Facebook’s definition that does not contain a disclaimer will be flagged and prevented from further impressions until the disclaimer information is provided. Ads that ran without disclaimers still appear in the ad library, and spending on these ads still appears in the Ad Library Report.
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The Wesleyan Media Project acknowledges support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Democracy Fund and Wesleyan University. The views presented herein are solely those of the authors.
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All the authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.
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Franz, M.M., Fowler, E.F. & Ridout, T.N. Accessing information about interest group advertising content. Int Groups Adv 9, 373–383 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41309-020-00083-z
- Interest groups
- Political advertising
- Wesleyan Media Project