Ad Hawk was produced by the Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization. The app helps Americans know who spends money to influence their votes. It provides valuable contextual information about TV and radio political ads this election year. Now you can identify ads as they air and learn about who is behind them immediately on your mobile device.


The idea behind Ad Hawk started at a Philadelphia’s Hacks/Hackers meetup, and the project began at the Random Hacks of Kindness hackathon in December 2011. After a few months of follow-up work, the technology eventually found a home at the Sunlight Foundation for further development and publication. It is powered by Echoprint, an open source music fingerprint and resolving framework, created and made available by the good folks at The Echo Nest.

Learn more about Ad Hawk from our press release and announcement blog post.


When you press the "Identify this ad" button, Ad Hawk starts listening to the audio coming into your mobile phone. The app creates a short digital fingerprint to compare against the database of hundreds of political ads we collect. If the audio fingerprint finds a match, we send you the information collected in our database about the sponsor of the ad and other details such as money received or spent, where the ad is on the air, media reports on the political group or ad and places to find more information.

Sunlight identifies new ads by monitoring media reports and the YouTube channels of political groups and campaigns. We research and pair these new ads with Federal Communications Commission data on ad spending, Federal Election Commission data on political contributions, press releases about ad buys and relevant news articles. With user permission, we collect anonymized location data to better map where ads are airing around the country.

Data Sources:

Ad Hawk relies on multiple data sources to provide you information on the ads you see. Much of the data originally comes from the federal government and would be greatly improved with a centralized, searchable and sortable database of political ads. Here is how we collect the data:

  • Expenditures, Donation Totals and Political Orientation come from Follow the Unlimited Money
  • Electioneering Communications data comes from the FCC
  • Monitoring YouTube accounts of political groups
  • Monitoring websites of political groups for press releases and announcements
  • Monitoring media for mentions of new political ads

Contact and More Information:

For questions or comments, please contact us. We will respond promptly.

Founded in 2006, the Sunlight Foundation is a nonpartisan nonprofit that uses cutting-edge technology and ideas to make government transparent and accountable. Visit to learn more.


The Federal Election Commission (FEC) categorizes committees by, among other things, the activities in which they are allowed to engage. Here we list the various activities that this sponsor is currently engaged in. Please click on any of the activity names for more information.

501(c) Organizations

501(c) organizations are nonprofit, tax exempt organizations that are legally permitted to spend money to influence elections so long as politicking is not their primary purpose. The tax code defines different types of nonprofit group and the rules they must operate under. Section 501(c)(4) is for social welfare organizations--like Crossroads GPS and Priorities USA. Section 501(c)(5) is for labor unions, and section 501(c)(6) is for trade associations like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Petroleum Institute.

Authorized Committees

Federal candidates must authorize in writing their political committees, which receive contributions and spend money on their behalf. Also known as candidate committees or campaign committees, examples include Obama for America and Mitt Romney for President Inc. Candidates directly control the money they raise through their authorized committees, and have the maximum amount of flexibility election law allows in how they can spend it.

Citizens United

Shorthand for a series of court rulings in 2010 and 2011 that drastically loosened regulations on big campaign contributors. In Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the Supreme Court ruled that corporations and unions can make unlimited political contributions.

Dark Money

Dark money refers to political contributions that are not disclosed, generally made to or by groups organized under section 501(c) of the tax code. While the Federal Election Commission (FEC) does require super PACs to disclose their donors, the super PACs are permitted to take money from nonprofits that don’t have to reveal the sources of their money, leading to a phenomenon that the Sunlight Foundation has dubbed “dead-end disclosure.”

Electioneering Communications

Also known as issue ads, are any broadcast cable, satellite or radio communications that refer to a clearly identified candidate for federal office (Congress or the White House). Electioneering communications are more subtle than traditional campaign ads and independent expenditures. They talk about issues and often times either bash or support the policies, records or positions of a candidate, and are a route for corporations, unions and other groups to spend large sums of money without having to report it publicly. Money spent on electioneering does not have to be reported to the FEC unless the activity occurs within 30 days of a primary election, nominating convention or primary runoff (for states that require primary winners in congressional races to get more than 50 percent of the vote) and 60 days of a general election or runoff (for states that require general election winners in congressional races to get more than 50 percent of the vote).

Express Advocacy

Express advocacy refers to the “magic words” (or images) that distinguish independent expenditures from electioneering communications. The FEC writes: “There are two ways that a communication can be defined as express advocacy (candidate advocacy): by use of certain ‘explicit words of advocacy of election or defeat’ and by the ‘only reasonable interpretation’ test.” But the FEC has also found some communications to be expressly political even if they don’t use the “vote for” or “vote against” formulation.

Federal Election Commission

The Federal Election Commission (FEC) administers and enforces the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA), the statute that governs the financing of federal elections. It is an independent regulatory agency, with six commissioners appointed by the president and congressional leaders of the opposite party. More recently, it is often politically deadlocked around campaign regulation decisions. The agency does, however, have a professional staff that helps journalists and the general public get access to and interpretations of campaign information.

Independent Expenditures (IEs)

An independent expenditure is any spending by any group to elect or defeat a federal candidate other than the campaigns of the candidates themselves. IE spending is disclosed to the FEC. Political parties, political action committees, PACs, super PACs, labor unions, corporations, nonprofit groups and individuals can make them, and they can include everything from paying salaries for door-to-door canvassers to printing bumper stickers to television commercials. In ads, independent expenditures expressly advocate the election or defeat of a clearly identified federal candidate. If a candidate’s name isn’t mentioned but his or her picture is used, it counts as an IE. So do terms that invoke a candidate or his policies (“Obamacare,” for instance). Groups and individuals making independent expenditures are not supposed to “coordinate” with the candidates they are benefiting, but if you don’t know what Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart have to say about that, you should.

Political Action Committee

A political action committee (PAC) is a group formed for the purpose of raising and spending money to influence elections, usually by contributing directly to candidates. PACs remain important players in elections, and they must abide by strict limits on how much money they can raise from individuals and organizations and spend on campaign (unlike super PACs and 501(c)s). The FEC defines two types of PACs: separate segregated funds (SSFs) and nonconnected committees. SSFs are established by corporations, labor unions, membership organizations or trade associations and can only raise money from individuals associated with them. Nonconnected committees are free to raise money from the general public. All traditional PACs must disclose donors to the FEC and the contributions they make to candidates.

Party Committee

A political committee that represents a political party and is part of the official party structure at the national, state or local level. Examples include the Democratic National Committee, the Republican National Committee and related organizations such as the National Republican Senatorial Committee or the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Social Welfare Organization

Another term for nonprofits that are 501(c)(4) organizations. While the IRS has defined rules how these groups operate, many of the new, politically active players--like Crossroads GPS and Priorities USA--have taken advantage of this category to raise and spend money on campaigns without disclosing it. While the IRS rules do allow such organizations to be politically active, it has signaled that it will be investigating to ensure that political organizations are not masquerading as social welfare groups to shield their donors from disclosure.

Super PAC

Also known as “independent expenditure-only committees,” these groups can receive unlimited funds and spend that money to influence elections. Super PACs are not allowed to coordinate with campaigns on how to spend their money, but candidates can attend super PAC fundraisers.