In Depth

Analysis: Will Viewers Tune in to Obama’s Half-Hour Ad?

Call it Barack Obama’s $3.5 million gamble, but as the Obama campaign readies to air a half-hour TV program at 8 p.m. EDT Wednesday on major broadcast and some cable networks, the question is will it actually work?

Amidst discussion about how the ad dramatically showcases the media buying advantages created by the Obama campaign’s fundraising prowess, there are questions about the ad’s potential effectiveness. The Obama ad will air Wednesday on CBS, Fox, NBC, BET, Univision, TVOne and MSNBC.

The real test of the ad’s success is a three-part one.

First, will it be seen at all, or will viewers ignore it? Second, will the ad really convert undecided voters or motivate already committed Obama voters to get out and vote? Finally, even if viewers don’t view the ad, will its airing fuel enough discussion in the press, on TV and radio talk shows and at water coolers of the issues it mentions or the ad itself to be worth the spending?

Because there is no recent history of half-hour campaign ads in the presidential race—the last one was aired by third-party candidate Ross Perot in 1992—none of the answers is readily apparent.

Also, the Obama campaign has encouraged people to convene at house parties to watch the ad, potentially making viewership more difficult to judge.

In 1992, Mr. Perot aired 15 half-hours, generating an average of 11.6 million viewers, according to the Nielsen Co. A final half-hour, which aired simultaneously on ABC, NBC and CBS, drew 26 million viewers.

That was a different time, when the major TV networks had a much bigger chunk of the total TV audience, and those half-hours were the major advertising tool of the Perot campaign.

This time around, Wednesday’s half-hour ad is just one small tool of the Obama campaign’s advertising plan. Generally, the Obama campaign’s ads are getting heavy airing in battleground states, but it also has aired ads in network TV news, entertainment and sports programming.

Unless the half-hour ad craters in the Nielsens, trying to accurately assess the impact of the ad alone isn’t going to be easy.

Nielsen said that recently CBS has been drawing audiences of 6.3 million viewers, NBC 9.7 million viewers and Fox 6.9 million viewers during that daypart.

On Fox on Wednesday, the Obama ad has the advantage of being the lead-in to the World Series, but the two small-market teams aren’t exactly setting the ratings on fire, so there’s no guarantee that will increase viewership for the ad.

While voters’ viewing of the political conventions and the presidential debates were generally up this year, will that interest apply as well to a 30-minute ad?

Stay tuned.