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Political Advertising|By Elizabeth Wilner, April 8, 2014
Check out the graphic »

From the 2004 election cycle through March 31, 2014, Kantar Media’s Campaign Media Analysis Group has classified more than 50,000 TV ads in races for president on down to local office. This figure excludes the thousands of ballot initiative ads, non-election issue ads, and pre-2004 campaign ads we’ve also classified. Even without them, this interactive “Eye” created by CMAG’s Harley Ellenberger showing the past decade in campaign TV advertising is the largest compilation of political ads ever assembled.

“I wanted to see what CMAG’s database could look like in a single visual,” Harley says. “This graphic isn’t just 50,000 campaign ads. It’s 10 years’ worth of work that helps you quickly make sense of 50,000 campaign ads.”

Check out the Eye in either Firefox or Chrome, which are best for scrolling and for watching the ads in the viewing box on the right side of the page. Beyond that, thanks to Tableau, the Eye is pretty self-explanatory. Red bubbles = ads sponsored by Republicans. Blue = Democratic. Orange = advertisers with other party affiliations, such as Green, Libertarian or independent. White = no affiliation. The size of an ad’s bubble is proportionate to the number of times it aired.

For example, the largest bubble in the Eye—the single most-aired campaign ad of the past decade—represents an ad by then-Sen. Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008. Given the CMAG title* “Unravel,” the ad itself opens, “It could all unravel, your healthcare under John McCain,” while showing a visual of an unraveling ball of twine. While the Eye won’t reveal actual spot counts (sorry!), as a point of reference, CMAG shows this ad airing nearly 24,000 times. It, and the nine other most-aired campaign ads of the decade, are also listed and made viewable in the bottom right corner of the graphic. All 10 aired during the 2008 presidential race.

Beyond enabling binge-viewing of 50,000+ campaign ads, the Eye reflects a thing or two about how political advertising has evolved—even just within the past two presidential races. Not one ad from the 2012 race exceeded the spot count of any of the 10 most-aired ads of 2008. (The most-aired ad of the 2012 race, an Obama ad attacking GOP nominee Mitt Romney for his “47%” remark, actually ranks 12th overall.)

What’s this a reflection of? A smaller battleground in 2012 meant those presidential ads aired across fewer markets, which held down occurrences. But beyond that, the 2012 Obama campaign targeted many of their ads more narrowly, keeping as many as 20 unique commercials on the air at any one time. Many 2012 presidential ads also aired for shorter periods of time than ads in previous races because they were produced to either drive, or take advantage of the news cycle—a growing trend for political ads.

The Eye also enables searching by terms used in either an advertiser’s name, in CMAG’s coding of the content/messaging of an ad, or in CMAG’s assigned title of the ad. Search for the term “patriot” and you’ll find that the most-aired ad associated with that term is President George W. Bush’s 2004 re-election ad accusing Sen. John Kerry (D) of flip-flopping on the Patriot Act.

The Eye shows that the most-aired TV ad of any Senate race in the past 10 years was Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer’s ad about outsourcing from 2010. The most-aired ad of any governor’s race, produced by GOP nominee Meg Whitman’s campaign, also ran in California in 2010. The most-aired ad of any House race: a 2008 ad by a group called America’s Agenda: Health Care for Kids crediting Rep. Melissa Bean (D) of IL-08 for helping to pass coverage for uninsured kids.

Here, too, is Obama’s 2012 ad touting that the first law he signed was the Lilly Ledbetter law (“First Law”). Here are nine TV ads CMAG captured by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth (under sponsor “SBVT”); the Priorities USA ads from 2012, including the controversial ad featuring steelworker Joe Soptic suggesting that Romney killed his cancer-stricken wife (despite the uproar, “Understands 60” actually aired a few times); McCain’s 2008 “Celebrity” ad (“Celeb”); and Bush’s “Windsurfing” slam against Kerry.

And of course, you can’t help but notice the dominance of healthcare reform—from its being the focus of many of the most-aired campaign ads (plural) of the decade, to the explosion of Republican-affiliated ads about the issue since the Affordable Care Act was signed in 2010.

We hope you’ll have as much fun exploring the graphic as we do. Send your findings and insights (and discoveries of any typos, since with 50,000 ads, there’s bound to be a few) to elizabeth.wilner@kantar.com and we’ll publish them in a future column. This visual will not automatically update with future ads, but we may update it after Election Day.

*Having existed since the late 1990s, long before posting ads online was common, CMAG assigns our own titles to ads as we capture them.