December 16, 2016
In January 2016, we launched the Political TV Ad Archive to track airings of political ads in select TV broadcast markets. While our aim was to archive as many ads as we could, to save them for posterity, another major goal was to put as many ads as possible in context for viewers by marrying them with fact- and source-checks from our journalism partners.
In a narrow sense, we accomplished that mission: our journalism partners fact- and source-checked more than 130 claims in ads that we tracked airing more than 55,000 times. Our fact checking partners also embedded our ads on their own websites and social media channels, leading to 2.3 million viewers of the ads in context of their fact checks.
Fact-checked ads ranged from then-candidate Donald Trump’s very first ad, which earned a “Pants on Fire!” rating from PolitiFact for using footage of middle eastern refugees as stand-ins for Mexican refugees without saying so to a National Republican Senatorial Committee attack ad on Ohio Democratic Senate candidate Ted Strickland featuring imagery of a flushing toilet (also “Pants on Fire!”)
The vast majority of the fact- or source-checked ads–94–were meant to influence the presidential election, but our partners also fact checked Senate and House races in such states as Arizona and Pennsylvania. About half of the presidential ads checked were sponsored by the candidates themselves; another 37 percent came from super PACs.
Only three earned PolitiFact’s most critical rating of “Pants on Fire” (The two above plus this Priorities USA ad supporting Hillary Clinton, which The Washington Post‘s Fact Checker thought did not merit as harsh a judgment as PolitiFact did.). Three also got “four Pinocchio” ratings from The Washington Post‘s Fact Checker: this ad from Ted Cruz’s campaign, this one from the Conservative Solutions PAC, which supported Sen. Marco Rubio in his presidential bid, and this one from Trump’s campaign.)
Overall, the stark contrast between Clinton and Trump on truth-telling, as shown in these ratings from PolitiFact–Trump has 62 “Pants on Fire!” ratings and Clinton has seven–were echoed in the ad fact checking, but the set of ad facts checked was perhaps too small to draw sweeping conclusions. Six out of eight of the fact-checked ads with ratings (FactCheck.org does not rate claims but PolitiFact and The Washington Post‘s Fact Checker do) by Trump’s campaign earned ratings ranging from “Mostly False” to “Pants on Fire!” as well as three or four Pinocchios. In contrast, of the 13 Clinton ads with ratings checked, only one earned a “mostly false” rating from PolitiFact and the rest received ratings ranging from “Half True” to “True.”
(To see all ads that were fact- or source-checked by are partners, scroll to to the bottom of our home page and click on the ads on the carousel.)
In a broad sense, however, this historic election made it hard to achieve our goals. While we believe that by collecting fact checked ads, we placed “some grains of sand on the balance pan of reason,” in the words of TV News Archive director Roger Macdonald, clearly the story of this election was not one of reason and facts triumphing over misrepresentations and outright lies. And that’s an understatement.
A now oft-cited story in BuzzFeed by newly named media editor Craig Silverman showed that in the weeks leading up to the election, “top-performing fake election news stories on Facebook generated more engagement than the top stories from major news outlets such as the New York Times, Washington Post, Huffington Post, NBC News, and others.” Meanwhile, political TV advertising was down, at least in the presidential race, according to the Wesleyan Media Project, and Trump was a no-show on paid TV advertisements in the general election until the very last weeks of the campaign.
Thursday’s announcement that major fact checking organizations–most of whom we’re privileged to call partners on this project–will be joining forces to help Facebook flag “fake news” posts is most welcome development, which hopefully will check the trend uncovered by Silverman and other journalists of fake news overwhelming social media feeds.
Meanwhile, at the TV News Archive, we’re thinking of new ways we can leverage our collections to help journalists heap more sand into that balance pan of reason as they cover the new administration–expect an announcement in coming days.
That said, we’re proud of what we accomplished with the Political TV Ad Archive, and the solid reporting on ad claims by our journalism partners. These were ads that did air widely on TV, to millions of viewers. Here is a look at the five top fact-checked political TV ads that received the most airings in the markets we tracked.
- “Change,” Trump ad attacking Hillary Clinton for being a “Washington insider”
This Trump ad attacking Hillary Clinton aired in key markets across the country more than 3,900 times in the final weeks of the campaign. The ad portrays as a “Washington insider,” and claims that under her watch “Taxes went up. Terrorism spread. Jobs vanished,” offering up Donald Trump as someone who can bring “real change.” PolitiFact did not assign a rating to the ad, but did report: “The charges leave out important context or are flat-out wrong. And needless to say, they inflate the influence Clinton had as first lady, senator and secretary of state.”
2. “Works for Us All,” Bernie Sanders campaign ad on income inequality
This ad from the Sanders campaign ran in several markets during the primaries, more than 3,500 times in the key markets we tracked. In the ad, Sanders makes his key arguments about income inequality. PolitiFact rated the claims as “half true”; for example, “while the super-rich may have accumulated 91 percent of the new wealth from 2009 to 2013…the latest analysis shows the ratio is now 58 percent since 2009…That’s a huge amount of new income for just 1 percent of the population, but it’s a stretch to say that it’s “almost all.”
3. “Children,” Clinton campaign ad on her record advocating for children
This ad from the Clinton campaign ran more than 2,490 times in key markets in late September and early October. Unlike the anti-Trump ads that dominated much of her advertising at the close of the campaign, this one was a positive ad highlighting her record advocating for children. PolitiFact did not rate the ad, but did report “This Clinton campaign ad compiles clips of Clinton through the years talking about her dedication to the welfare of children….The record shows the issue has been a major focus of hers for the past 35 years.”
4. “Dante,” Priorites USA Super PAC attacking Trump
This ad from a super PAC backing Clinton airing 2,465 times in key markets in the final days of the campaign features a a 17-year-old disabled cancer survivor, who says he wouldn’t want a president who would make fun of him. The ad features a clip of Trump from a rally where he flailed his arms and said, “Ahh, I don’t know what I said! Ah, I don’t remember!” “True,” reported PolitiFact. “The ad’s charge is accurate. Trump was imitating New York Times reporter Serge Kovaleski, who has arthrogryposis, a congenital condition which limits the movement of his joints.”
5. Clinton ad attacking Trump on his unfitness to command nuclear weapons
This Clinton ad attacking Trump aired nearly 2,390 times in key markets in October leading up to Election Day. It shows clips of Trump saying things like “I love war” and “”I would bomb the s— out of them,” to bolster argument that Trump can’t be trusted with nuclear weapons. “Half True,” reported PolitiFact. “These comments are cherry-picked and give a misleading impression that Trump has advocated for haphazardly using nuclear weapons.”