Video: How effective was Obama’s ad?

By M. Alex Johnson Reporter
updated 10/29/2008 8:59:06 PM ET 2008-10-30T00:59:06

Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama blanketed the airwaves Wednesday night with an unusual 30-minute advertisement on seven television networks in a splashy demonstration of the extraordinary financial resources at his disposal with less than a week to go before Election Day.

There was nothing particularly special about the ad itself — which conjured up images of a country crying out for change against a suitably patriotic background — except for its length. Not since 1992, when independent billionaire Ross Perot self-financed a series of infomercials, has a presidential candidate aired program-length advertisements in prime time.

“We’ve seen over the last eight years how decisions by a president can have a profound effect on the course of history and on American lives. But much that’s wrong in our country goes back even farther than that. We’ve been talking about the same problems for decades and nothing is ever done to solve them,” Obama said.

“For the past 20 months, I’ve traveled the length of this country, and Michelle and I have met so many Americans who are looking for real and lasting change that makes a difference in their lives.”

Obama featured the stories of four families who were portrayed as struggling in the slumping economy. Explaining how he would address their problems, he spotlighted his proposals for energy efficiency, reduced spending in Iraq, investments in health care technology and preventive measures, tax cuts for the middle class and increased spending on early childhood education.

The campaign hired Davis Guggenheim, executive producer of former Vice President Al Gore’s Academy Award-winning documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” and director of the HBO series “Deadwood,” to direct the ad, which aired on NBC, CBS, Fox, MSNBC, BET, Univision and TV One. ( is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal.)

And it could even afford to go live at one point. Before a cheering crowd of supporters in Kissimmee, Fla., Obama cut in to urge “all of those who joined us across the country” to “choose an economy that rewards work and creates jobs and fuels prosperity, especially for the middle class.”

“In six days, we can choose hope over fear and unity over division,” he said.

McCain can’t keep up
The campaign of Republican nominee John McCain released a short statement afterward, saying: “As anyone who has bought anything from an infomercial knows, the sales job is always better than the product. Buyer beware.”

McCain launched a pre-emptive strike before the ad aired, calling it a “gauzy, feel-good infomercial” that he said was paid for by “broken promises,” a reference to Obama’s circumvention of spending limits by his refusal to accept public funding. He also released a traditional 30-second ad recalling his attack on Obama last summer as a lightweight celebrity, dismissing him as a candidate of “fancy speeches, grand promises and TV specials.”

But the ad buy was a powerful statement of Obama’s financial advantage with the campaign in its final week.

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At about $4 million, it ranks as one of the most expensive political ads in history. But that is only about 1.7 percent of the campaign’s total spending on television, which is projected to hit $230 million by Election Day.

About $100 million of that will have been spent in October, meaning Obama’s one-month budget for television alone is more than the entire post-convention campaign budget for McCain, who accepted a spending limit of $85 million when he opted to avail himself of public financing. As a result, the Obama campaign is able to run an average of 7,700 TV ads a day across the country, about double what McCain has been able to afford, according to research this month by TNSMI-Campaign Media Analysis Group, a political advertising consulting firm.

Indeed, while McCain has been scaling back his television spending in some states — among them Michigan, Minnesota and Colorado — Obama has the resources to dump new money into states he appeared to have written off long ago.

With signs that West Virginia, for example, may again be competitive, the Obama campaign is returning to the airwaves there, while aides said they were also considering pouring new money into Kentucky, North Dakota and Georgia.

And while McCain has made judicious use of so-called “free media” — news coverage and TV events like the appearance by his vice presidential running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, on “Saturday Night Live” — Obama has kept pace.

Wednesday, in fact, Obama was set to make more free TV appearances than McCain, above and beyond the 30-minute ad. Obama also taped appearances on ABC’s “World News” and Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show,” while McCain was scheduled for a single appearance on CNN’s “Larry King Live.”

It all adds up to a television landscape in which entertainment and sports programming often is merely a temporary respite from the relentless march of political advertising, because in addition to the glut of presidential spots, viewers in many parts of the country are also being inundated by spots for local and state candidates.

TV ads work, especially negative ones
The reason is that TV ads works — especially negative ads, however much voters may say they dislike them.

Researchers at the University of Notre Dame found that during the 2004 presidential election, 14 percent of voters said they changed their minds about their favored candidate after watching negative ads.

“Negative advertising, in spite of the fact that we don’t like it, still can shift opinion,” said Joe Urbany, a marketing professor who led the research team.

“The negative is attention-getting. It tends to generate more argumentation and counter argumentation," Urbany said. “Again, people don’t like it as much, but they’re thinking about it.”

Moreover, said Dan Jones of Dan Jones & Associates, a political polling firm in Utah, “people have an easier time remembering something negative about a particular candidate rather than an issue.”

That’s why, beginning Thursday, the National Republican Congressional Committee will begin spending $84,000 over five days in Pittsburgh on attack ads in behalf of William Russell, the Republican opponent to Democratic Rep. John Murtha. The ads include clips of Murtha using the words “redneck” and “racist” to describe some Pennsylvanians.

In Georgia, meanwhile, Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss is facing his own negative assault from Democrat Jim Martin. For Chambliss, the position is a turnabout — six years ago, he unseated Democratic Sen. Max Cleland, a decorated veteran who was left a paraplegic by injuries he suffered in the Vietnam War, by airing ads that questioned Cleland’s patriotism.

‘Don’t believe everything you hear’
Bob Botsch, a political scientist at the University of South Carolina-Aiken who has tracked political ads for more than 30 years, said ads like those preyed on uninformed voters, who he said should not take them at face value.

In one recent ad, the Obama campaign accused McCain of opposing “stem cell research.” But McCain not only has long supported stem cell research; he even broke with his party in 2001 in support of more controversial research on embryonic stem cells. What the Obama campaign spotlighted was the position of the Republican platform — which McCain disagrees with.

“If you look at the Republican platform, it is a much more radical position against stem cell research,” Botsch said. “I think that’s what the Obama people are seizing on.”

Likewise, Botsch said, a recent McCain ad twisted Obama’s position when it claimed that “Senator Obama voted 94 times for higher taxes.”

“The tax thing is pretty much taking votes out of context and making it look like a vote for a tax increase, when, in fact, it may have been a vote to not continue a tax decrease or a vote that was one part of what may be a more complicated package later,” Botsch said.

John Frank, a political analyst in Eau Claire, Wis., said there was a clear lesson for voters:

“Don’t believe everything you hear in a 30-second commercial, whether it’s a politician or a new chair for your living room.”

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