Claire Beale on Advertising: Obama has rewritten the advertising rules

Monday 03 November 2008 01:00 GMT

When America votes for its President tomorrow, it will make its decision based in no small part on advertising. The 2008 race has been fought on the most expensive advertising battleground in US political history.

By the time the last vote has been counted and a victor declared, the candidates will have spent more than $800m between them on TV advertising alone, $300m more than in 2004.

The sheer scale of the ad war is stunning. Last week John McCain ran 1,543 ads in seven states in a single day; Barack Obama ran 3,160 ads in the same 24-hour period.

There’s no question who has dominated the advertising contest. Obama’s provocative decision to eschew public funding in favour of raising his own money has paid off. While McCain has been limited to the set $85m of public money, Obama has outspent him on advertising by an estimated three to one.

Obama has been able to buy TV airtime in traditional Republican states like Indiana and Alaska, whose support McCain might otherwise have taken for granted, and spend $3.5m on a 30-minute TV advertorial, broadcast on the major US networks in primetime last week.

The electoral ad campaigns have been a fascinating snapshot of media fragmentation in action. As the Obama camp, led by campaign manager David Axelrod and political ad agency GMMB, has squared up to McCain and his chief strategist Rick Davis, TV advertising has been the focus, despite the proliferation of new media.

The good news for the McCain camp is that their relatively meagre ad budget has been able to take advantage of some cost-effective TV opportunities. Media monitor Nielsen has found that some of the cheaper TV channels appeal particularly to Republican voters.

Still, the TV campaigns, many of which you’ll find on YouTube, have hardly been creatively ground-breaking. Perhaps that’s not surprising considering how many are being churned out. The more interesting marketing decisions have been taken in the new media, and there’s no doubt that this has been an election of exciting media experimentation.

The web has played a vital part. McCain is widely reckoned to have won the internet search battle, deploying search optimisation more effectively by buying keywords that related to the Obama campaign. So if you searched for “Obama for president” you got a McCain ad headlined: “Why not learn more about John McCain for president”.

But Obama has scored with his use of emerging media channels. His decision to announce the choice of Joe Biden as candidate for Vice President by text-messaging 3 million mobile users was a coup, and was followed with a mobile website offering news updates and videos.

In fact, it’s a reflection of the early-adopter profile of the Democratic voter that Obama has been more experimental in this regard. The Obama website became a social networking site, allowing people to set up their own “” pages, and sent regular emails with campaign updates.

Obama has also bought wholeheartedly into the marketing trend for dialogue, encouraging people to interact with the Obama brand via user-generated content. The result has been a proliferation of YouTube videos, songs and home-made ads in support of his campaign.

One of the reasons the Obama ad campaign has proved so potent is that, insiders say, his campaign team have been empowered to respond quickly – as any advertiser using immediate media such as the internet or mobile absolutely must. Approval lines and times have been uncommonly short, very unlike how most advertisers are comfortable operating.

Without presupposing the election result, I’d say Obama has won the advertising battle, and I wouldn’t be surprised if his campaign becomes a blueprint for modern political advertising, one that also holds valuable lessons for marketers everywhere.

Best in show: Barack Obama (Charles Stone III)

Remember Budweiser’s iconic Whassup ad from 2000. Well, the ad’s director Charles Stone III has reassembled the original cast and remade the ad in support of Barack Obama.

But it’s all a far cry from the joyousness of eight years ago. Each of the guys has either lost their job, their home, their investments or been posted to Iraq and their “whassup” catch phrase is lined with desperation.

Then optimism returns when Obama comes on to the TV and the final “whassup” is greeted with the word “change”. Type whassup Obama into YouTube to view. If Obama needs it, this ad could make all the difference.

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