Fundraiser in chief: US presidential candidate Barack Obama is rolling in campaign money, and TV is reaping the benefits

Raymond Snoddy
Raymond Snoddy

Senator Barack Obama, the highest-spending advertiser in US political history, is taking the ultimate risk with viewer patience on Wednesday by running 30-minute ads across the major networks, spending perhaps as much as $10m (£5.8m) in the process.

If you can find a way, it would be instructive to watch US television tonight (Wednesday).

Senator Barack Obama, the highest-spending advertiser in US political history, is taking the ultimate risk with viewer patience by running 30-minute ads across the major networks, spending perhaps as much as $10m (£5.8m) in the process.

Will half an hour of undiluted Senator Obama hand Republican presidential contender John McCain his only chance of winning, as the US populace is bored to death? And what about all the primetime viewers irritated at the wait to watch favourite shows such as The New Adventures of Old Christine and Knight Rider?

Marketers will wonder whether a sitcom-length political ad is something of a blunt instrument. Those with long memories will point out that the last US politician who tried such an extravagant stunt was Ross Perot in 1992. Quite.

We should all be grateful that UK electoral law, or at least custom and good sense, prevents Gordon Brown having 30 minutes of broadcast time across all British TV channels at once.

There must also be some doubt whether it was strictly necessary for Obama to air no fewer than 1342 television commercials in the Washington DC media market in the first three weeks of September, when McCain managed only eight.

Setting aside all quibbles, it is now clear that Senator McCain has made three fundamental errors - apart from picking the wrong year to be born in.

First, he compounded the age problem by picking inexperienced Alaskan governor, Sarah Palin, as his running mate - a move that should make even diners at The Ivy pause for thought.

Second, he made many serious advertising and marketing errors, not least by indulging in negative campaign advertising, despite the current public distaste for the genre.

Third, he chose to accept $84m (£49m) in public money for his campaign, and now can't raise any more from his supporters. As a result, in a reversal of the natural order of things, the Republican candidate is impoverished, and the Democrat has the dosh.

Obama took the risk of rejecting public funds, and can now raise as much as he can get his hands on. The man is rolling in money, spending no less than $150m (£88m) in September. He will definitely break George Bush's record $188m (£110m) spent on the 2004 campaign.

Despite the complexity of his multimedia campaign, most of the Democratic candidate's money is being spent on straightforward telly. He poured funds into a barrage of TV advertising last week, covering a two-day break from the campaign trail while he visited his sick grandmother.

Obama seems on track to win next week's election, having spent more on TV advertising than any presidential candidate in history. Is this the missing link – final proof that TV really works?

Even if the only thing proven next Tuesday is that Obama is a true believer in TV advertising, it is one hell of an endorsement. The senator is supposed to be a smart guy – smarter than President Bush, at least.

The only disappointment is that not many marketing directors have attempted to ride the coat-tails of all that presidential spending. An honourable exception has been Unilever, which brought back Spraychel, its animated heroine, who wants to be president of the refrigerator in the brand's latest 'I Can't Believe It's Not Butter' campaign.

Perhaps Unilever set its ambitions too low. Spraychel could have come to McCain's aid as the first animated vice-presidential candidate in history.

Raymond Snoddy is a media journalist and presenter of BBC TV's Newswatch

30 seconds on Barack Obama's presidential campaign

  • The 30-minute Obama ad will air on 29 October across major networks CBS, CNN, ABC, NBC, and Fox.
  • Obama spent $5m (£2.9m) on ads during the 2008 Olympic Games, which McCain topped with $6m (£3.5m).
  • During the Democratic primaries, Obama apportion-ed 40% of his TV adspend to primetime spots.
  • The Obama campaign raised more than $150m (£88m) in September, with 600,000 first-time donors giving an average of $86 (£50) each.
  • The choice of Senator Joe Biden as Obama's running mate was announced to thousands of supporters via SMS.
  • The vice-presidential debate between Joe Biden and Sarah Palin was watched by 70m people in the US, 7m more than any of the three presidential debates.
  • Obama's acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention drew 38m viewers on US networks.
  • Along with TV advertising, the Obama campaign has produced several web-only documentary videos, which are accessible at barackobama.com.

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