URI's Devlin donates presidential campaign ad archive to university

Sep 23, 2013

L. Patrick ``Pat’’ Devlin was known for years as one of the nation’s top scholars of presidential debates and campaign commercials. Now, Devlin, an emeritus professor of communication studies at the University of Rhode, is about to make URI a center for his archive of presidential television campaign ads.

Devlin is donating to URI what the university says may be the world’s largest private collection of video archives of presidential campaign ads. Devlin, who taught, did research, commented on and published scholarly and popular press studies on political advertising, speech and debate at URI for nearly 40 years, has donated his entire collection.

The Devlin collection begins with 29 ads for General Dwight Eisenhower’s 1952 presidential election and ends with ends with 480 primary and general election spots from the presidential campaign of 2012.

Most of the recordings are on VHS and other formats. But librarians at URI’s Special Collections Unit are seeking a grant to digitize the entire collection, which would make it easily accessible to anyone with access to the Internet.

Devlin began collecting ads in 1972, when he was on sabbatical in Washington, D.C. and researching presidential campaign speechwriting. He was having difficulty speaking to speech writers for then-President Richard Nixon and his Democratic opponent, South Dakota U.S. Sen. George McGovern.

While the speechwriters were elusive, Devlin found that he could interview the political consultants who made the television ads. ``They talked to me and they sent me their ads. That’s when it began.’’

For a time, Devlin created what he calls a ``cottage industry’’ in selling copies of the ads he collected to political scientists and other scholars. ``But the Internet ended my endeavor because anyone can look at ads anytime and they are there forever,’’ said Devlin.

Devlin’s collection also includes ads that were never aired by Ronald Reagan in 1980, Michael Dukakis in 1988 and Bob Dole in 1996. It also includes ads for such Third Party candidates as Ralph Nader in 2000, Ross Perot in 1992 and 1996 and John Anderson in 1980.

The collection charts the evolution of campaign advertising: From the black-and-white television era when much presidential political advertising was framed in a positive light in an effort to made the candidate look favorable to voters, to an era when 90 percent of ads were negative, as was the case in 2012.

The Devlin collection also mirrors larger campaign trends, especially the laser-like focus on a dozen or so swing states that end up deciding modern presidential elections. Never has so much money been spent on advertising meant to be seen by so few voters, Devlin says.

And the shorter attention of voters and the higher cost of media advertising has also become a focus. In the early days of presidential campaign – before 1980 – about 40 percent of the ads were five minute spots. Now, most ads are 30-second spots.

Moreover, television ads are being supplanted by social media, says Devlin. ``Traditional advertising is being shoved aside by social media. It’s a way to megaphone your message to individuals.’’