Brand Obama Thrills Broadcasters with Record Ad Spend, But Cheap Video and Democracy Are the Big Winners

It may be silly season for the Presidential campaigns on television until Election Day, but the Brand Called Obama has been brought to you by the internet.



David Carr, one of my favorite columnists, points out in today’s New York Times that the embarrassment of riches the Obama campaign is heaping upon television broadcasters is about to come to an abrupt, and unwelcome, halt.

Broadcasters, like their brethren in financial services, are no doubt are preparing for their own revenue apocalypse with similar grace

From the piece:

“Last week, the Obama campaign surpassed the record in advertising spending set by the Bush campaign in 2004, and the end of the campaign has yet to be counted. These final days are when campaigns spend the most to influence the least — those last few undecided voters.

By some estimates, Senator Obama will have spent $250 million on local, cable and network television in just five months, a rate of advertising that outstrips Burger King, Apple and Gap on an annualized basis. And it dwarfs the $188 million that President Bush spent in 2004.

Campaign advertising comes and goes in two-year cycles, with presidential years being a particular bonanza, and then it reliably goes away. But the bubble was bigger this year: In the last presidential election cycle, all political advertising spending was about $1.7 billion. This year it will be $2.5 billion, according to current estimates. The bullish year in broadcast political bull has served as something of a Band-Aid on a hemorrhaging ad market. Pulling that bandage off on Nov. 5 is going to hurt.”


As I wrote last February in The Brand Called Obama, it was the campaign’s unusual deftness with internet and new media that ultimately fueled this huge cash bonanza.  Traditional advertising may be straight from the playbook, but for a candidate who was largely unknown – and was never going to woo the big money Dem donors initially promised to Hillary Clinton – a direct introduction to voters was his only shot. (And it’s worked. Obama is looking for places to spend money at this point.) But as powerful as television advertising is, it is the great two-way conversation that occurs on the internet that remains the Obama campaign’s greatest achievement.

Deserving of special mention is the campaign’s remarkable use of video as the ultimate media weapon, one which has helped the campaign cheaply and effectively raise cash, create a formidable ground operation, and ultimately, get out the vote. 

Last summer, I interviewed Obama’s director of field video, Arun Chaudhaury, at an event sponsored by Frog Design. The 32 year old filmmaker has had a remarkable ride – literally, learning to drive so he could make the trek between Chicago and Iowa –  documenting the campaign in real time, and shaping the candidate’s brand image in powerful ways. 

You can watch the conversation in its entirety here.

Chaudhaury and the entire video team has been busy. As of this posting, the organization has churned out more than 1,678 videos, getting an astonishing 87.5 million views -nearly four times that of the McCain campaign.  (This does not include the many thousands more that have been generated by supporters.) Even more remarkable, says Chaudhaury, is that for a video to be counted as “viewed” it has to be seen in its entirety. Nor is this just for the kids. Chaudhary reported being astonished to discover that the average Obama video viewer is 45-55 years old, who was watching  – and forwarding – mostly long form videos such as speeches, unscripted moments and media interviews.

The campaign has also gone to extraordinary lengths to include regular people in their videos – turning them into media stars themselves –  something that the McCain campaign has grasped only late in the game, with their “I Am Joe” video.


Nothing has escaped documentation – like this shaky-the-cameraman-video of Obama addressing his volunteers. This get out the rally video was followed within 24 hours with this video of the event itself.  The Obama campaign has turned itself a full fledged media organization – a fact which should make broadcasters truly hungry for their fingernails. 

But, as members of the Obama campaign told me before Super Tuesday, their biggest challenge early on in Iowa was simply teaching young voters the simple things, like what a caucus was, what they were expected to do there, and how they could get there and back. (A great example – Citizen’s Guide to the Iowa Caucus – a charming throwback to those hideous film loops some of us had to watch in grade school.)

“What we were able to do, for very little money, was just get people up to speed on the basic process,” I was told. Of course, reaching out to people on their existing social networks – like Facebook – made sure that new voters had fun and managed to get rides home. “And now, they’re hooked on the promise of a participatory democracy.”