The engine behind both presidential campaigns is fundraising, and we’re talking a lot of money. Fundraising in this election has already crossed the billion-dollar mark, and over half of that has been spent on TV advertising. Super PACS are behind many of the ads, but outside of political circles these organizations are dimly understood.
How can ordinary voters make sense of the campaign money game? Entrepreneurs Dan Siegel and Jennifer Hollett believe they have a solution – the Super PAC App, which they developed to bring transparency to the 2012 presidential campaign.
The idea is simple: aim your smartphone at any campaign commercial as you watch it, and the app pulls up key facts about who’s behind it, and even helps you fact-check its claims.
Available for iOS or on the web, the app uses audio-fingerprinting technology to identify any Romney or Obama commercial and provide helpful information.
We were impressed by the idea and decided to put it to the test:
Functionally speaking, the app was easy to use and worked with both live TV commercials and those on YouTube. We had some follow-up questions, so we talked with co-creator Dan Siegel, a recent graduate of MIT’s Sloan School of Management:
What motivated you to create this app?
Super PAC App is free, ad-free, and entirely focused on the user experience.
We were motivated to build something that connects users with important information in a fun and easy way. The official campaigns and outside groups have already raised over $1.4 billion, much of which is pouring into slickly-produced thirty-second TV ads. Who is behind these ads, what are they saying, and are the claims based on any facts? That’s important information that otherwise takes hours of homework to find. With Super PAC App, you can find out easily, as you’re watching the ad.
Why did you think it would appeal to voters?
With your TV screaming political messages at you during every commercial break, there’s a tendency to tune out. We were inspired to create something that cuts through the noise, because voters shouldn’t have that hopeless “forget it” feeling. You like your TV? Keep watching. You like your couch? Stay on it. You don’t understand what these political ads are all about? Use Super PAC App.
How does your audio-fingerprinting system work? When a new ad airs on TV, how long does it take to show up in the app?
The audio fingerprinting is powered by our partner, TuneSat. We are tracking groups that have run ads to date, or that have run presidential ads in prior elections. When these groups upload an ad online, it automatically is pulled into our database and fingerprinted. To date, this has been happening at the same time that an ad is aired on TV. So if it’s on your TV, chances are pretty good that it’s in Super PAC App.
Are the fact-check resources in the Claims section non-partisan, or at least ideologically balanced? How can a user be absolutely sure they are objective?
We point users to non-partisan, trusted news outlets that write specifically about the claim in question. This includes “fact checks” but can also include more context or information about the claim. We avoid articles that are stories about the ad itself, unless the “story” is checking the facts or claims of the ad. Super PAC App won’t tell you “true” or “false”, but it will connect you with information to make that assessment yourself.
Who’s downloaded the app already?
We were excited to see that we hit #1 in the App Store on our day of launch, within our category of free news apps, and cracked the top 100 for all free apps. It was definitely a moment when Jennifer (my co-founder) and I looked at each other and knew—we built something that people cared about. It was a rewarding feeling. We high-fived, did a dance, and then got back to work because with a user base, keeping the app fresh matters that much more.
The app has been downloaded in all fifty states and in fact across the world. We’re excited to see people using Super PAC App in swing states that are getting hit hardest with these ads. We’re also interested to see that users are checking us out in Saudi Arabia, Iran, China, Russia and other places we weren’t necessarily targeting.
Can you share some usage demographics with us?
Most of our users are repeat users, coming back to learn more. Our ad database is growing by the day, of course, and the avalanche of ads seems like it’s picking up. The average user is inside the app for nearly three minutes per session, so they’re spending time digging around, which is great.
What’s been the most surprising thing you’ve found in this experience?
Frankly it’s always a surprise to find out people want what you’re building. You can do market and customer research ahead of time, but until the product goes live, you’re basing a lot on assumptions and a gut feeling. We built this thinking it was needed and people would want it. But at the end of the day, we were three people in a small office getting no sleep. There were plenty of moments I looked up from my computer at 3 am, saw the team cranking away, and thought, I hope this matters.
Do you see a future in the app after the election?
We have built a tool that connects users with trustworthy information in real-time. Political commercials happen to be the “flavor of the moment” that can benefit from real-time fact checking, but we are just getting started. There are other ways we can apply the same concept to benefit users and we’re exploring that for after the election.