Over the past year, Madison’s billboards have gradually become bleaker and far more political in nature. What used to be local advertisement territory is now also home to a mix of political attacks and endorsements.
This spring, billboards paid for by the “Community for Responsible Government” emerged, thanking specific city alders for “trying to keep Madison safe,” according to Tone Madison. But, very little information exists surrounding CRG.
Searching for them using IRS’s nonprofit search app yields no results. CRG declined to comment when asked by The Badger Herald to provide further details surrounding their organization.
A recipient of the CRG’s “thanks,” Ald. Sheri Carter, District 14, said she is not affiliated with the group and was previously unaware of their existence.
“I am aware of the billboard, yes,” Carter said. “I do not know the organization.”
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Though CRG posted its website on their billboards, visiting the website itself sheds no light on the actual organization. Instead, one can find pictures and promotional blurbs for the three local leaders the organization claims to support: Carter, Ald. Paul Skidmore, District 9, and Charles Myadze.
According to Tone Madison, CRG is a 501(c)4 organization. The IRS website states that 501(c)4 groups are social welfare nonprofits, and can therefore lobby and politically campaign, as long as it is for the purpose of “social welfare.” These groups do not have to disclose the sources of their funding. Those that do not are known as dark money groups.
Because dark money groups do not reveal their donors, it is extremely difficult for researchers, journalists and citizens to understand where the group’s money is from, University of Wisconsin political science professor Eleanor Powell said.
Sometimes the political stance of a dark money group is obvious — the NRA and Planned Parenthood are both 501(c)4 organizations, according to Open Secrets. In other instances, organizations will give themselves obscure names to mask their politics, UW journalism professor Michael Wagner said.
Powell said there are multiple reasons why a group might want to hide their donors.
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“It can be because they don’t want any blowback for themselves or for their business colleagues,” Powell said. “There are also potentially more nefarious reasons you might want to hide your donations. If somebody had a scandal-tainted past, that’s not helpful to their candidate. Or if they’re people who aren’t allowed to donate, like foreign companies.”
Upon inquiry, Adams Outdoor Advertising — the company which owns the billboards CRG is renting — shared CRG’s Madison address, 1360 Regent Street. But when visited, it becomes clear the address only belongs to a UPS P.O. box.
Additionally, the image on the CRG’s billboards isn’t a Madison street, but a stock image, appearing on various home inspection and realty websites, according to Red Madison.
The effect CRG’s billboards have on voters is hard to judge, Powell said. But, in races in which little information about the candidates exists, Powell said tactics such as these advertisements could make a difference.
“A lot of local races are covered less, have less advertising, so there’s overall less information about the candidates,” Powell said. “A smartly targeted burst of advertising can be important in these sorts of elections.”
Wagner said the decline of local journalism across the country led to a spike in low-information races. Wagner said when there are fewer journalists to cover local races, voters receive less information, and are forced to rely on partisanship to make decisions.
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Madison, which has two major daily newspapers, a host of digital newspapers and local television, is yet to experience a serious local news drought, Wagner said.
While Carter said she did not know whether using billboards for political advertisements would prove effective, she said she believed candidates are watching to see if such tactics will influence voters.
“You asked me about the billboards,” Carter said. “We both acknowledge that we don’t know who this organization is. But I will say that I am appreciative of the recognition of the work that I’ve done.”