Ad Hawk swoops in to reveal sources of political ads

Shazam is a music service that allows you to use your smart phone to identify the song playing in a restaurant or an elevator.

Now, a new mobile application born in Philadelphia can do much the same for political ads.

The Sunlight Foundation has just released Ad Hawk, which lets viewers see who’s behind the messages they’re getting.

In the era before the Citizens United decision allowed unlimited amounts of private money to flow into campaigns, the tool Bob Lannon has developed would have been useful far less frequently.

“The rise of the super PAC increased the volume of the ads that we’re seeing,” Lannon said.

To demonstrate the application, Lannon holds his smart phone up to a computer playing an ad supporting Pennsylvania U.S. Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick’s opposition to the Affordable Care Act.

The app pulls up the ad in short order, highlighting the funder: the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Its name sounds pretty neutral, but the app also pulls up its spending history.

The Chamber has devoted most of the $8 million it’s spent on political advertising opposing Democratic candidates, and the rest supporting Fitzpatrick, U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch and other Republicans running for office.

It also identifies presidential ads, such as those from Priorities USA Action, the super PAC supporting President Obama.

“Although Obama made many statements … opposing the use of super PACs in campaigns,” explained Lannon, “he very famously said he would not unilaterally disarm in that conflict, and [Priorities USA] is his weapon.”

Lannon’s target audience is viewers like his parents, who follow politics but don’t read the paper cover to cover every morning:

“I think a lot of Americans are skeptical about campaign ads,” Lannon said. “They know that there’s a lot of B.S. in a campaign ad, but they aren’t exactly sure what’s true, what’s not, who’s behind a given ad. I think this is just one step towards watching them more actively.”

Lannon was asked by the Sunlight Foundation to expand and refine the app for the non-profit to distribute with its research. Soon, Lannnon hopes to incorporate links to fact-checking web sites weighing in on the content of every ad.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.