Seeing spots: the Kanter Archive

Seeing spots: the Kanter Archive – News Feed

David Mark

Long after the campaigns are over, the ads live on. Consultants and candidates, even from losing efforts, routinely send their television and radio campaign ads to the University of Oklahoma, where the school’s Political Communication Center has become the leading repository for campaign commercials from both winners and losers.

The Julian P. Kanter Political Commercial Archive has between 80,000 to 100,000 political commercials, starting in 1936 for radio spots and 1950 for television ads. Most of the political spots are alphabetized by candidate. The most common viewers are teachers, writers, students, media, political consultants and academics throughout the world.

“People use them for research, and they use them for writing,” said Leroy Bridges, interim director of the archive. “We have a climate controlled room” so the ads are kept in top shape.

The files are particularly valuable when putting together documentaries on political figures from the past, often for PBS stations. The materials are from candidates running for offices ranging from the presidency, Congress and governorships, to state and local offices. Ads for and against ballot initiatives and tapes of presidential debates are also included in the files.

The archive (www.ou.edu/pccenter) relies on donations from candidates, political consultants, special interest groups, ad agencies and major political parties. While they might be reluctant to donate spots from losing campaigns, many consultants want their work to live on in perpetuity.

The ads cannot be used for partisan political purposes. That would include digging up campaign commercials from a candidate 20 years before to see if they had changed their position on an issue or to find old attacks made against a candidate with the intention of resurrecting them.

While privileges can be suspended if this policy is violated and written research requests in advance are preferred, the system operates mostly under the honor system.

“Users must provide assurance that the materials will not be used in any unauthorized way,” says the center’s donor guidelines. “The archive provides viewing access only to the materials and conveys no other rights to the user.”

The archive was established in 1985 when the University of Oklahoma acquired a private collection of about 25,000 political commercials from Julian P. Kanter, a longtime professor who collected campaign commercials and started the archive.

Even for candidacies long since forgotten, the archive’s holdings at can provide a snapshot of what issues were on voters’ minds at the time, whether it fear of nuclear attack during the Cold War or environmental concerns during the 1970s. But many of the campaign commercials from decades ago look remarkably similar to the political ads of today, Bridges said.

“Taxes, national defense, the minimum wage – they look very familiar,” he said.

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