Obama's 30-minute documercial

Thomas Ash
30 October 2008

The Obama campaign dominated the airwaves yesterday, using its considerable financial muscle to buy half an hour of prime time programming on most of the major networks (as well as specialty channels like Black Entertainment Television - surely not the best use of resources?) The results can be seen here:

Having called Colin Powell's endorsement powerful, I risk revealing myself as a bit of a softy by admitting that the mawkish music and hard-luck stories worked on me as they were intended to. As Obama narrated the tales of hard-working families, struggling workers and retirees forced back into the workforce to get decent healthcare, one could be forgiven for thinking one was watching a tear-jerking documentary. Treacly? For sure. But also quite effective. Obama's documentary-cum-infomerical outperformed the usual programming in its 8 p.m. timeslot, drawing a total audience of 26.3 million. I doubt as many people would have been willing to listen to a politician lecture them for half an hour.

The advert took few risks - unlike McCain, Obama is not in a position where that would be necessary or wise. The four individuals and families chosen were spread evenly accross the crucial swing states and demographics, with a black couple and an Hispanic teacher sandwiched between two white households. None of them looked anything like the young acolytes whom some critics imagine Obama supporters to be. In between their stories, we heard moderate Democratic governors from midwestern swing states offer their endorsements. One could almost hear the boxes being ticked off as a retired Brigadier General reassured voters worried about Obama's credentials as Commander-in-Chief.

In the end, it is hard to imagine this commercial changing very much. Earlier in the campaign, it might have put to rest some voters' worries about a relatively unknown new figure on the political stage by showing him looking both moderate and presidential. But, if the breakdowns of the polling which followed them are anything to go by, it seems that the debates have already accomplished that. Nonetheless, it can hardly hurt to make Americans more comfortable with the man who in six days' time will likely be their President-Elect.

Update: According to the BBC's Friday night news bulletin, Obama's audience was in fact 33 million. 

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