By Eric Bauer
We're all sick of campaign ads.
But let's face it, for the next few weeks you won't be able to avoid them unless you disconnect your TV, radio, computer, and phone. Your best defense against this political blitzkrieg is to be aware and informed.
Or so believe the makers of Ad Hawk, a free app that identifies the campaign ad you're listening to and tells you who's behind it, where their money comes from, and where they stand politically.
It relies on technology similar to Shazam, the hall of fame app that identifies the song you're listening to, and using it couldn't be simpler.
When an ad comes on, hold up your phone and click Ad Hawk's "Identify this ad" button. The app listens to a portion of the commercial and creates a digital fingerprint, which it then compares to its audio database of many hundreds of ads.
If it finds a match, which it mostly does, it will display the title and a few screenshots, along with information about the group responsible, who its donors are, and where and how it spends its money. It also links to the full commercial on YouTube or the web, in case you want to see it again.
Ad Hawk is the brainchild of the non-profit and non-partisan Sunlight Foundation, which aims to make "government accountable and transparent," along with a group of Philadelphia journalists and programmers. The app uses audio technology developed for Echoprint, an open source music ID service.
I put it to the test using ads appearing on TV in Boston from the presidential and the Massachusetts Senate campaigns, as well as ads from other races available in abundance on YouTube. It flawlessly identified the commercials from the campaigns of President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney. It did equally well with ads for Senator Scott Brown and his Democratic challenger Elizabeth Warren, as well as other US Senate races around the country.
It stumbled on some races with a lower national profile. It couldn't detect ads currently running in which embattled Massachusetts Congressman John Tierney attacks his opponent, Republican Richard Tisei, or those where the National Republican Congressional Committee attacks Tierney.
It also had problems with commercials from the New Hampshire governor's race, misidentifying an ad by Republican Ovide Lamontagne as an ad for Democratic US Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio.
Of course, identifying commercials paid for by the campaigns themselves isn't particularly useful. Taglines like "I'm Barack Obama and I approved this message" make them easy to spot.
But what about ads from Super PACs, and other special interests, which have been pouring millions of dollars into campaigns across the country since the US Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision? It's here where Ad Hawk performs its biggest public service.
It not only identifies those ads almost as soon as they hit the airwaves, it provides information that helps put them in context.
For example, it easily identified an attack ad run by the US Chamber of Commerce against Maine gubernatorial candidate Angus King, an independent, noting that the chamber "is generally considered a conservative organization" and "is known for spending more money than any other lobbying organization on a yearly basis." It also noted the chamber has spent $23.7 million this election cycle, $20 million of it in opposition to Democrats, and listed its top 10 donors by name.
Unfortunately, the information Ad Hawk provides about Super PACs is a bit spotty. It correctly identified Priorities USA Action as supporting Barack Obama, and American Crossroads as supporting conservatives.
But the single biggest Super PAC, Restore Our Future, which has spent far more money on ads supporting Mitt Romney than the Romney campaign itself, isn't identified as being pro-Romney in meaningful way.
Worse, if you look at Ad Hawk's expenditure graph, Restore Our Future appears fairly non-partisan: $41 million spent in opposition to Democrats, $40 million in opposition to Republicans. What that masks, however, is the fact that the money spent to oppose Republicans was targeted at Romney's primary opponents.
Ad Hawk has one technical caveat, too. It records the location of users to help the Sunlight Foundation track where in the country ads are appearing. If, like big donors, you want to hide completely (or you're particularly concerned about battery life) you can turn that feature off on the Settings screen.
Sunlight Foundation officials have said they would like to tie Ad Hawk in with an independent fact-checker, like PolitiFact or FactCheck.org. That would take care of its one obvious shortcoming. A similar app developed by former students at MIT's Media Lab, SuperPAC App, does that, but only for the presidential election.
In the meantime, Ad Hawk performs a useful public service - or at least gives you something to do the next time you're subjected to ads like "Run, Joe, Run" or Libertarian Gary Johnson giving both Democrats and Republicans the finger - literally.