Archive of 35,000 TV Political Ads Launched, Creating a Badly Needed Way to Hold Politicians Accountable

The long-looming 2016 United States presidential election has already got many of us, even (or maybe especially) non-Americans, instinctively flinching at anything that smacks of political campaigning. Given that the noise has nothing to do but intensify, how do we stay sane for the duration of the year, not to mention able to tell the credible claims from the incredible?

I recommend getting some perspective with a visit to the Internet Archive’s newly opened Political TV Ad Archive. Its creators have, “after sifting through more than 100,000 hours of broadcast television coverage and counting,” organized “more than 30,000 ad airings” into a site meant to, in the words of Internet Archive’s Television Archive Managing Editor Nancy Watzman, “bring journalists, researchers, and the public resources to help hold politicians accountable for the messages they deliver in TV ads.” A formidable task, given that the current storm of political ads in which we find ourselves comes as only the latest visit of the larger blizzard of political ads that has swirled around us since Eisenhower answered America 55 years ago.

At this point, even the most well-informed and media-literate among us face a difficult search for clarity amid all the slantedly aggressive “messaging,” and so the Political TV Ad Archive has accompanied its data with links to “fact-checking and follow-the-money journalism by the project’s partners,” which include the American Press Institute, the Center for Public Integrity, FactCheck.org, and The Washington Post’s Fact Checker. “Before the primaries are over, the public in key primary states will be buried in campaign ads generating more heat than light,” Watzman quotes Television Archive director Roger Macdonald as saying, highlighting the ease with which it lets us “have a better chance at separating lies from truths and learn who is paying for the ads.”

What has the project found so far? To take examples just from its scrutiny of the candidates drawing the most media attention, partner Politifact “rated a claim in this Donald Trump campaign ad as ‘Pants on Fire’ because it proclaimed that Trump would ‘stop illegal immigration by building a wall on our southern border that Mexico will pay for,’ while showing footage not of Mexican immigrants, but rather of refugees streaming into Morocco that had been pulled from an Italian news network.”

On the other side of the great divide, partner FactCheck.org “reported that a Hillary Clinton TV ad that claimed that drug prices had doubled in the last seven years was inaccurate,” claiming that “brand-name drug prices on average have more than doubled” when “more than 80 percent of filled prescriptions are generic drugs, and those prices have declined by nearly 63 percent, that same report says.”

The lesson to take away so far: ads are ads, and political ads are even more so. We have no defense against them but what facts we learn and what degree of hair-trigger skepticism we bring to the table, both of which tools like the Political TV Ad Archive can only increase. Evaluate these flurries of claims from all sides as best you can without getting too obsessive about it, and you’ll surely survive 2016 with your reason intact, and even a thing or two learned about the dark arts of political advertisement. Stay smart out there, ladies and gentlemen — especially if you live in a swing state.

Related Content:

Eisenhower Answers America: The First Political Advertisements on American TV (1952)

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.


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