Political TV ads from current and past campaigns can be a valuable resource when researching a candidate or campaign. While YouTube provides a helpful starting point for finding political ads of interest, several advanced search tools are available to find how much candidates spent to buy ad time, as well as archives to find older TV ads not otherwise found online.
FCC Public Inspection Files
TV stations have long been required by the Federal Communication Commission to maintain “public inspection files” available for in-person review, which include a “political file” with schedules and contracts for advertising time purchased by candidates and certain issue advertisers.
Since July 1, 2014, all broadcast TV stations have been required to upload their public inspection files to the FCC’s publicly-searchable website at https://stations.fcc.gov/. While not comprehensive, the FCC database also includes some pre-2014 ad buy information from the top four networks in each of the top 50 media markets since August 2, 2012.
The FCC’s search interface is organized by station and is generally easiest to search by a station’s call letters. Each station’s political file is typically organized by year, whether it is a federal, state or local candidate or a non-candidate issue ad, and the name of the paying committee.
Once you find a particular campaign, you can see a list of the contracts and invoices filed between the campaign and the station, which include detailed information on how many ad spots were purchased, which programs they aired during and at what rates they cost. The documents also show the media agency placing the ad buy and the commission the agency received. Here are examples of a typical contract and invoice from a 2014 Senate campaign.
Currently the online system only applies to broadcast television stations. However the FCC is currently in the public comment phase of a proposed rulemaking process to extend the online public file requirements to cable and satellite television and terrestrial and satellite radio stations. According to Broadcast Law Blog, at present pace the requirements could be in place in time for the 2016 election cycle.
Until the online filing requirements are extended to cable, satellite and radio broadcasters, stations’ political files are still a matter of public record, and are required to be made accessible to the public in-person during normal business hours. The political file is required to be retained for a period of two years.
Political Ad Sleuth
The major limitation of the FCC’s database is its station-by-station search interface. However the website http://politicaladsleuth.com/, a project of the Sunlight Foundation and Free Press, is working to bring better search functionality to the FCC’s political file database.
Political Ad Sleuth’s search interface extends search capability to find all filings for a particular candidate or issue campaign committee across multiple stations. Political Ad Sleuth also uses the FCC filings to generate reports on recent ad buying activity across multiple stations within a TV market or across a state.
However the database has some limits, being reliant on volunteer data entry to capture details such as an ad buy’s cost, dates and number of ads purchased. So currently some searches provide more detailed results than others. You can help improve the database by volunteering some of your own time to enter information here.
Archival Video Resources
Finding the actual video of campaign ads requires a different set of resources. Certainly a good first stop for finding a particular candidate’s campaign ads is to search YouTube, as most campaigns in recent years have been in the practice of posting some or all of their TV ads online. While YouTube provides a deep well of political ads to search, there also exist several well-curated collections of archived political advertisements available to the public.
For finding older campaign ads, the Julian P. Kanter Political Commercial Archive at the University of Oklahoma’s Political Communication Center hosts the preeminent American archive of political ads, with more than 90,000 commercials in their collection and featuring TV ads as far back as the 1950s and radio ads back to the 1930s. While the collection is formidable, its accessibility to the public is relatively cumbersome. After finding an ad in their search catalog, researchers can arrange to view the videos on site or on loaner DVDs by mail for a fee. This C-SPAN video from a few years back provides a good overview of the archive and how it was collected.
There are also two good alternative archives, which provide less exhaustive collections but are fully online accessible: Stanford University's Political Communication Lab and the Museum of the Moving Image’s The Living Room Candidate collections.
The Living Room Candidate provides an excellent archive of presidential campaign commercials dating back to 1952, organized by election and candidate, and also categorizes ads into curated collections, such as biographical ads, ads on issues such as civil rights, and even ads that use a candidate’s own words against them.
Stanford University's Political Communication Lab has a more scattered collection of videos from the last 20 years, also providing presidential campaign ads since 2000, but notably including a good if incomplete collection of California campaign commercials. Similar state-specific resources can be found elsewhere with a little searching, such as this archive of Minnesota campaign ads collected by Minnesota Public Radio.