The Data

A new technology now tracks all political advertising activity in the majority of the country. Marketed by Campaign Media Analysis Group (CMAG) for political clients, the system monitors the transmissions of the national networks (ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox) as well as 25 national cable networks (such as CNN, ESPN and TBS). More importantly, the system monitors local advertising in the country’s top 100 media markets. The system’s software recognizes the electronic seams between programming and advertising. When the system first detects a commercial spot's unique sound pattern, it downloads the ad and creates a storyboard (the full audio and every four seconds of video). Analysts code the advertisements into particular categories by product for commercial clients and by candidate or sponsor for political clients. The ads then are tagged with unique digital fingerprints. Thereafter, the system automatically recognizes and logs that particular commercial (or "creative") wherever and whenever it airs.

CMAG provides two different forms of data that are used in this project. First, for every political ad produced, CMAG creates a storyboard, including a complete transcript of all audio and a still capture of every fourth second of video. These storyboards enable us to undertake an extensive coding exercise: A team of graduate and undergraduate students code the content of each of these storyboards on a wide range of topics, ranging from the spot’s main objective to its tone, the issues discussed, and even the characterizations used to describe candidates.

The second type of CMAG data involves day-by-day reports on the targeting of all political ads in the nations’ top 100 markets. The unit of analysis in these files is the broadcast of a unique spot. A sample of this frequency data from the 2000 elections is show below. For each airing, CMAG provides us with a unique name given to each different creative and information on the time, the length, the station, the show and the estimated cost of the spot's airing.

tab data

For each ad, this frequency information is then merged with the coded content from the storyboards in order to produce a single, comprehensive database. In 2000, CMAG tracked almost one million (970,410) political television advertisements in the country’s top 75 markets. Of these, the vast majority, 94 percent (908,068), had an electoral objective while 62,342, less than 6 percent, were coded as genuine issue ads. With relatively few statewide offices up for grabs, more than eight in ten (83 percent) election ads aired were for federal offices in either primary or general elections. Of these 783,937 spots, 38 percent were part of the presidential race.

We have great confidence in the CMAG data in terms of tracking the airings of particular ads at particular times. Checks of station logs in selected logs indicate an extremely high degree of accuracy see Ridout, Franz, Goldstein and Freeman, "Measuring Exposure to Campaign Advertising", 2002.

Markets included in the study

The 100 markets included in the Wisconsin Advertising Project study are: Albany, Albuquerque, Atlanta, Austin, Baltimore, Baton Rouge, Birmingham, Boston, Buffalo, Burlington, Cedar Rapids, Champaign, Charleston, Charlotte, Chattanooga, Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Colorado Springs, Columbia, Columbus, Dallas, Davenport, Dayton, Denver, Des Moines, Detroit, El Paso, Evansville, Flint, Fresno, Ft. Myers, Grand Rapids, Green Bay, Greensboro, Greenville, Harrisburg, Hartford, Honolulu, Houston, Huntsville, Indianapolis, Jackson, Jacksonville, Johnstown, Kansas City, Knoxville, Las Vegas, Lexington, Little Rock, Los Angeles, Louisville, Madison, Memphis, Miami, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Mobile, Nashville, New Orleans, New York, Norfolk, Oklahoma City, Omaha, Orlando, Paducah, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Pittsburgh, Portland (ME), Portland (OR), Providence, Raleigh, Richmond, Roanoke, Rochester, Sacramento, Salt Lake City, San Antonio, San Diego, San Francisco, Savannah, Seattle, Shreveport, South Bend, Spokane, Springfield, St Louis, Syracuse, Tampa, Toledo, Tri-Cities, Tucson, Tulsa, Waco, Washington DC, West Palm Beach, Wichita, Wilkes Barre, Youngstown

Coding the Ads

The Storyboards

Each different creative detected by CMAG's system is transcribed, with the transcript of the ad appearing under a storyboard of screen-captures taken every fourth second of the ad. It is these storyboards that the the Wisconsin Advertising Project coders work from in evaluating the various contextual questions surrounding each creative.

Below is an example of a storyboard along with a video clip of the ad it comes from.



Click here to download a RealPlayer video of the sample TV advertisement.

The Questions

Creatives that are deemed by our first wave of coders as 'electioneering ads' (including 'sham issue advocacy ads') are then coded for their sponsor and race before being coded by the second wave of coders according to the following questions:

  • Does the ad say who paid for it?
  • Specifically, what is the wording of the acknowledgement of sponsorship (use ‘PFB’ as abbreviation of ‘paid for by’ )
  • Does the ad direct the viewer to take any action (as opposed to merely providing information)?
  • If action is urged, what is the action?
  • Does the ad mention any of the following specific words or phrases: "vote for," "elect," "support," "cast your ballot," "[Smith] for Congress," "vote against," "defeat," or "reject"? Specify below related words or synonyms.
  • Specify any other variation or synonym of the above words or phrases:
  • Does the ad provide a phone number?
  • Does the ad provide a mailing address?
  • Does the ad provide a website address?
  • Is the favored candidate mentioned in the ad?
  • Does the favored candidate appear on screen narrating his or her ad?
  • Is the favored candidate’s opponent mentioned in the ad?
  • In your judgment, is the primary purpose of the ad to promote a specific candidate, to attack a candidate or to contrast the candidates?
  • If the ad is a contrast ad, what proportion of the ad promotes (as opposed to attacks) a candidate?
  • If the ad is a contrast ad, does it FINISH by promoting a candidate or attacking a candidate?
  • Is the office at stake mentioned in the ad?
  • Which of the listed characterizations made of the favored candidate? Bipartisan; Bold; Caring/empathetic/understanding/hears concerns; Committed; Common sense; Compassionate; Competent/knows how to get things done; Conservative ;Family man/family woman; Father/fatherly; Fiscally conservative; Friend of Bush; Hard-working; Honest; Independent; Innovative; Liberal; Leader; Moderate/Middle of the road/ Mainstream; Mother/motherly; Patriotic/American values; Progressive; Protector; Principled; Proven/tested/experienced; Reformer; Religious/spiritual/moral values; Self-made; Tough/a fighter; Visionary; Other, specify; No adjectives or descriptions of candidates; Not applicable
  • Which of the listed characterizations made of the opposing candidate? Career politician; Dangerous; Extremist/radical; Failure; Friend (puppet) of National Rifle Association; Friend (puppet) of religious right; Friend (puppet) of special interests ;Friend (puppet) of the Bushes; Heartless; Hypocrite; Incompetent; Liberal; Negative; Partisan/uncompromising; Reckless; Right-wing/reactionary; Risky; Soft/weak; Taxing (or some version of liking taxes); Traitor/turncoat; Unpatriotic; Washington insider; Other (specify); No adjectives or descriptions of candidates; Not applicable
  • Is the party label of the favored candidate or the opponent mentioned?
  • Is the ad intended to be humorous?
  • Does the ad cite supporting sources (including footnotes) to bolster various claims?
  • Is an opponent’s commercial mentioned or shown on screen?
  • Does the ad refute any specific claims about the favored candidate made by an opponent?
  • Does the ad mention 'negative' or 'dirty' campaigning by opponents?
  • In your judgment, is the focus of this ad the personal characteristics of either candidate or on policy matters?
  • What is the primary language of the ad?
  • Does an American flag appear in the ad?
  • Is there an explicit mention of September 11th or the attack on the World Trade Center? (do not include vague 'terror'/ 'terrorism' references)
  • Is George W Bush mentioned or pictured in the ad?
  • Is there a central figure, a person that would receive “top billing” if the actors were credited, in the ad?
  • If there is a central figure, who is it? (who appears most often; who is the ad about; who is giving information?)
  • Does the favored candidate appear with this person?
  • In terms of life cycle, how old is the central figure?
  • What is the race/ethnicity of this person?
  • What is the main basis of credibility of the central figure in the ad?
  • Aside from the central figure (or if there is no central figure) who else figures prominently in the ad?
  • If family of candidate are featured, which member(s) in particular?
  • Does the favored candidate appear with supporting actors? (not including the opponent)
  • If there are supporting actors, are they used as props or delivering a message? (if more than one actor, choose the main)
  • Where does the ad take place? If there is a central figure, answer only for this person.
  • If favored candidate is NOT the central figure, but appears in the ad, where does he/she appear? (choose most prominent location)
  • Who speaks to the audience in the ad?
  • Does the ad include endorsements? An endorsement is support from politicians, law enforcement or other political leaders NOT celebrities. Endorsement ads include: written or oral phrases such as “California prosecutors endorse candidate x” as well as a politician who does an ad for candidate x.
  • If yes to endorsements, by whom?
  • Is a political figure or celebrity shown supporting a favored candidate?
  • If yes to political figure or celebrity specify whom:
  • Campaign issues: Referring the CAMPAIGN ISSUES SHEET. Please list the issues that come up in this ad in the order in which they appear.