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The Obamercial: Half Campaign Ad, Half "60 Minutes"

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The reviews from last night's Barack Obama infomercial — aka the 30-minute ad buy on NBC, CBS, Fox, MSNBC, BET and Univision — are in, and they are pretty good. That should surprise no one; the Obama campaign has proven itself pretty darn good at execution. Despite the very real risk of overreaching and seeming extravagant and excessive (Greek columns, anyone?), the campaign was smart in making the Oba-mercial not just about the candidate, but about four separate American families and their struggles — and how Obama was going to help them.

Did it break new ground? Not really — even Obama acknowledged that on last night's Daily Show: "At this stage, everything that needs to be said has probably been heard by a lot of voters. What you want to do is remind them one more time." I'm not even sure that it would have changed any minds — did undecideds or pro-Republicans tune in? Or did they watch "Pushing Daisies?" — but either way, it's been getting healthy play in today's news cycle, and that's a whole lot of airtime that Obama didn't have to pay $5 million for.

(By the way, though everyone has made a big huge deal about the fact that the campaign dropped some sweet coin on this, it's not the first $5 million ad buy Team Obama has made — they spent the same amount on their ad buy during the Olympics. They also purchased time in local markets during the Superbowl, recall; and Hillary Clinton, lest we forget, broke the infomercial ground in this campaign with her hour-long, $500K Hallmark Channel special last February.)

All that being said, there was one new thing I noticed about the ad: Obama's role as journalist/documentarian. The spot was called "American Stories, American Solutions," and it was put together in part like a newsmagzine, with Obama in the role of Lesley Stahl (all that was missing was the ticking stopwatch). Here Obama was the storyteller, the narrator presenting the facts rather than the orator emoting over a tale of woe on the stump. Actually, I thought that was the best thing about the ad and I wish they'd made that the focus without diluting it with the biographical stuff and canned testimonials from people like Claire McCaskill, Tim Kaine and Eric Schmidt (Google is everywhere, people. Especially where there is money). The infomercial was most compelling when it was talking about the struggles afflicting real American families, recounted in Obama's familiar voice with attention to small, simple details — including his own details. That rang real and authentic, and drove home that Obama is a leader who listens, observes and pays attention, and keeps the focus on who he's working for. (I will also say that it stands in sharp contrast to John McCain's recent invocations to fight fight fight fight fight.)

The authenticity of that storytelling was, in my view, somewhat diluted by the infomercial part — the testimonials (didn't we see those videos at the DNC?) and the staged Oval Office-like set (I know, we have to imagine him being presidential. But still, a set is a set). When he did that careful desk walkaround at the very beginning, moving around the desk and then perching on its side, I couldn't help but picture the stage directions in the script. (It also reminded me of that moment in Richard Nixon's "Checkers" speech when when he got up from the desk, walked around, perched and said, "Because, you see: I love my country." Check it out here at 1:45 on. I'm not saying Obama is like Nixon — caveat commenter! — it was just a moment where I really recognized the stagecraft.)

But stagecraft is important, as is savvy direction and choice of imagery. Football players, passing neighborhood scenery under sunny skies, families around the kitchen table, classrooms, that waving wheat that Rachel Maddow liked so much — all of it is essential American imagery, meant to underscore the Obama I'm-just-like-you message (and counter the McCain-Palin he's-not-like-you message). It's the stuff of classic campaign commercials, reminiscent of, say, Ronald Reagan's "Morning In America," except with black people. If you want to make your message stick these days, then you have to package it effectively — otherwise you're Ross Perot with a pie chart.

So: What I would have preferred from an artistic point of view — the use of that time to present those stories as compelling, necessary information, without the tinkly background music and weirdly distracting Bill Richardson facial hair — is clearly not the ideal from a campaigning point of view. The goal here wasn't to create a streamlined, cohesive half-hour of television that could compete for an Emmy, it was to drive home key messages about a candidate in order to win an election. Included in that is not only who watched it (and a 21% take in the ratings is pretty damn good), but how it plays before and after (you saw it on the evening news last night, and you'll see it tonight) — and, in this election cycle, how it plays online (last night the YouTube play count was at 323,447; as of the time of this posting, it's at 740,746).

Upshot: I think Howard Wolfson actually said it best: "There isn't a campaign anywhere that wouldn't want to be able to afford thirty minutes of network time a week before the election to make a final pitch to undecided voters...it was a highly effective, well-produced and well-executed closing argument. And at a time when the McCain campaign is doing everything it can to knock Senator Obama off his game, it's another example of how and why that task is so difficult."

If you're not one of the 26.3 million who watched it last night or the 740,746 who have viewed it on YouTube, here it is below.

p.s. Couldn't help but notice...no Hillary Clinton. But footage from the post-infomercial rally with her huband is here.

Update: See Jeffrey Feldman on the infomercial, here.