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,, 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 “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)

Dizzy Gille­spie Runs for US Pres­i­dent, 1964. Promis­es to Make Miles Davis Head of the CIA

2,200 Rad­i­cal Polit­i­cal Posters Dig­i­tized: A New Archive

Free Online Polit­i­cal Sci­ence Cours­es

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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