Primary Source: The Wesleyan Media Project

The Wesleyan Media Project has become a go-to authority for election-related data.

The 2018 election season surprised many with its record-breaking volume of political advertising. For real-time insights into the ad war playing out, numerous mainstream media outlets turned to Wesleyan Associate Professor of Government Erika Franklin Fowler and her colleagues at the Wesleyan Media Project (WMP). In October 2018 alone, close to 3,000 news articles cited WMP’s research or quoted one of its codirectors for analysis. Which are the hottest races? Which candidates’ ads are dominating the airwaves? What issues are the major parties focused on? And who is paying for all these ads?

How do they answer these perennially interesting questions? Data. Since 2010, the Wesleyan Media Project has tracked the volume and content of political advertising on local broadcast and national cable television in all 210 media markets in the United States. The underlying data comes from Kantar/CMAG, a commercial company that sells it to parties, candidates, news media, and others who have an interest in knowing what is being said on airwaves across the country.

“Students who work for us—through paid research assistant positions or through tutorials in the classroom—watch each video and answer a host of questions including the sponsor, tone, and issues mentioned in the ad, which we then merge back to the frequency database that tells us how often, on which programs and stations, and during which days and times each ad aired,” explained Fowler. “From there we analyze aggregate trends—in issue discussion, tone, and spending (including dark money spending)—releasing information in real time on these analyses to news media and the public.”

“We are the only publicly available source of this information,” she adds, noting that the codirectors also use this information to inform their scholarly research.

In 2018, for the first time, WMP also analyzed and reported on social media advertising in a sampling of races, using data from Facebook and Google Ad Services. “We are fortunate to be among a small number of organizations that have access to the Facebook API, which enables us to systematically pull information from their archive,” Fowler said.

The volume and content of social media data is “several orders of magnitude larger than what we typically analyze on television,” she said. “We’ve been working in partnership with the Quantitative Analysis Center for some time on scalable methods on some other projects and are now applying those to this new challenge.”

Through a combination of external funding and support from the Office of Academic Affairs, in January WMP added a pre-doctoral fellow to the team, who will work on audiovisual computational methods to help replicate and extend the coding done by students.

Though 2018 made it clear that the great tradition of the TV campaign ad isn’t going away any time soon, Fowler expects the role of digital advertising to continue growing in 2020 and beyond.

In the immediate future, she said, “We’re keeping an eye on technological developments in the distribution method of television advertising allowing advertisers to target specific households rather than geographic areas, which will result in targeting on TV that is more similar to what is currently going on online.”

Director of Media & Public Relations at Wesleyan University