When the Internet Archive celebrated its 20th birthday last week, longtime journalist Kathy Kiely, currently of BillMoyers.com, was there to talk about why the Political TV Ad Archive helps her do her job–and why it has value for anybody who wants to become more educated about “who is trying to buy your vote.”

It’s worth watching her entire presentation; at 27:09, she presents what seems like an obvious question: “Is this a political ad?” The ad in question, below, is about Sen. Rob Portman, who is now locked in a close race to keep his Senate race; it aired in January 2016.

Here is what Kiely said about it:

So how many people felt like that was a political ad?

Feel like a political ad to you? Yeah!

It’s not. The FEC says it’s not, the Federal Election Commission. Why?  Nobody said you should vote for or against Rob Portman. And… it didn’t air in Ohio within 30 days of the primary. So it’s not a political ad.

So there’s no reason for anybody to report what the American Chemistry Council is doing for Rob Portman. None at all. It’s only because of the Political TV Ad Archive that we know that that ad aired 370 times in Cleveland and Cincinnati alone in January—just in one month.
And I could not look up all the records, but I did check at one of the highest rated TV stations in Cleveland, and…airing 43 of them cost $19,300—which is about four times as much as a Political Action Committee can legally give to a candidate. But of course this wasn’t an ad for Rob Portman, so it really doesn’t matter.

So that’s a lot of dough, and it’s buying a lot of good will for an organization that this year alone has spent $4 million lobbying Congress [added: now $6.1 million] on issues that we don’t care about like toxics, putting little pellets in your drinking water—I don’t see why we should worry about that—and notice that in the ad chemicals were never mentioned, Rob Portman’s positions on chemicals were never mentioned, and it’s only if you look at that faint little chiron at the bottom, or heard the blehblehblehbleh at the very end, that you might have some idea of who was behind this ad. So how do you know? How do you know who’s trying to buy your vote or telling you who to vote for. Is it a group you trust? Is it a group you agree with? It’s only because of work that’s being done here at the Internet Archive that we as citizens and we as journalists have a chance to start pulling the threads and start doing that reporting.

The American Chemistry Council is an example of “dark money” political spending. The sponsor is a trade group, which is not required to disclose its donors. And in the case of this particular ad campaign, the group is not even required to report the ad to the FEC. Because the Political TV Ad Archive captures ads as they air “in the wild,” on TV, rather than relying on FEC reports, we were able to track the ad above.

Watch Kiely’s full presentation.