The Wesleyan Media Project, which analyzes campaign television advertising in federal elections, has launched a new initiative to educate the public about attack ads and dark money in elections, thanks to funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.
As anyone who watches television is well aware, the airwaves are filled with attack ads. Negativity in advertising is especially pronounced in some races, such as the Connecticut governor’s race, in which only 15 percent of ads were positive from Sept. 1 to Oct. 23. At the same time, dark money—or spending by outside groups who do not disclose their donors—is playing an increasingly prominent role in campaign advertising. This is concerning to those who care about transparency in elections.
The Wesleyan Media Project’s new website, AttackAds.org, aims to educate voters about attack ads and dark money. It answers questions such as: What is dark money? Is negativity always bad? Why are dark money attacks worse than other attacks? Who is benefiting from dark money attacks?
The site also has a quiz (created by Wesleyan Media Project students) for visitors to test their knowledge of dark money; graphics documenting the rise in attack ads; a new parody attack ad, and a short documentary on attack ads and dark money featuring the project’s co-directors—Assistant Professor of Government Erika Franklin Fowler, Michael Franz of Bowdoin College and Travis Ridout of Washington State University.
“Our goal is to increase transparency in elections and to provide information about what scholars know about the influence of negativity, dark money and interest group advertising,” Fowler said. “And given the amount of negativity on the airwaves, a little levity couldn’t hurt.”
A new Twitter account @AttackAdsOrg will also operate as a satirical version of the Wesleyan Media Project, highlighting attack ads in elections.
The Wesleyan Media Project has been tracking and analyzing campaign advertising since the 2010 election cycle. It is the successor to the Wisconsin Advertising Project, which tracked political advertising between 1998 and 2008. A team of Wesleyan students analyzes ad data compiled by Kantar Media/CMAG on criteria including sponsor, content, tone and emotional appeal.
This year, the Wesleyan Media Project released a total of six reports on this analysis between April and Election Day. The information is used by news organizations in their coverage of the midterm elections. More than 200 articles in news outlets around the country–and some overseas–have cited the Wesleyan Media Project’s data and quoted the project’s co-directors.
The project reported over $1 billion spent on more than 2.2 million broadcast TV ad airings in federal and gubernatorial races between Jan. 1, 2013 and Oct. 23, 2014. Though spending is up slightly, the volume of ads was actually down somewhat from the previous midterm election cycle, when more than 2.4 million ads aired in the same time period. This drop was most dramatic in advertising for House races–down 27 percent for Democratic ads and 37 percent for Republican spots.
While political advertising has remained nasty, negativity has leveled off this year. As Fowler said in the last report: “Since 2000, the percentage of negativity has been rising in each election cycle, but it seems we may have finally reached a plateau. Negativity this cycle has been comparable to past levels. Gubernatorial ads are more negative this year than they have been previously, but House ads are less negative. Senate ads are slightly more negative than 2010 but less negative than 2012. Any way you count them, however, attack ads continue to dominate the airwaves.”
In partnership with the Center for Responsive Politics, the Wesleyan Media Project also studied the rise in advertising by “dark money” outside groups, or those whose donors are not being disclosed. From Jan. 1, 2013 through Oct. 23, 2014, nearly 38 percent of the 600,000 outside group-sponsored ads that aired were paid for with dark money. Another 3.6 percent of these ads were sponsored by groups that only partially disclose their donors. This trend inspired the Wesleyan Media Project team to create the new website and videos to educate the public about dark money.