How should Obama best spend donor coin?

Barack Obama is raising money at an unprecedented rate — capitalizing on a vast base of small donors to garner $52 million in June alone, hoping to amass $300 million for the general-election push in October.

Forgetting that the Batman movie topped the $50 million mark in its opening day, by political standards, that’s pretty impressive.

The questions are how the Democratic nominee should best spend it, and whether he and Republican rival John McCain can count on the old strategy of carpet-bombing swing states with ads during local news. Because while too much money is never a bad thing in politics, the campaigns might discover in an increasingly fragmented TV universe, $300 million doesn’t go as far as it did even a few years ago.

Flooding the zone with commercials is one thing; gaining the attention of people who have yet to tune into this historic election might be another — especially with the various ad-avoidance tools they now possess.

Based on history, most campaign cash is earmarked for local TV, concentrated around news and Oprah Winfrey’s talkshow. As Election Day nears, ads spill further outward into daytime court and shows like “Judge Judy” and “Dr. Phil” — reaching people you don’t like to think about walking around shopping malls, much less voting.

The current campaign, however, comes as shifting technology renders TV less efficient. Product integration, after all, continues growing precisely because advertisers don’t trust conventional 30-second spots to impact viewers adept at zapping, TiVo-ing and otherwise escaping them.

Marty Kaplan, the Norman Lear Center chair of entertainment, media & society at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication, studied local 2004 election coverage with the U. of Wisconsin and found it to be woefully deficient. Not surprisingly, paid advertising was happy to fill the information void.

Inasmuch as this election will focus on undecided voters in swing states, Kaplan anticipates that the campaigns will “try to target their spending on particular demographics,” which requires being savvy about the audience for selected programs and not just mere geography.

These swing voters are also prone to watch more network primetime than committed partisans, so Kaplan concludes that purchasing local time within network entertainment fare would be an efficient way to reach them. Small wonder, as Advertising Age reported, that Obama’s campaign will place spots throughout Olympic coverage on NBC and its cable networks in August.

When the election nears, as Kaplan wrote in an email, “There will probably be so much money washing around that pretty much every available minute on every TV outlet will likely be taken by the final blitz — which means that local TV news will, as in past election years, be the beneficiaries of the 2008 gusher.”

Yet when those ads start popping up, it’s not like viewer/voters are a captive audience. And while DVRs haven’t swept the landlocked heartland as thoroughly as coastal hubs, the average home has plenty of options — from more than 100 channels to videogames — to distract viewers.

New media complicates the equation, though its most significant role will likely be in its ability to manipulate traditional news outlets. Last week, for example, McCain’s campaign issued a video highlighting the media’s alleged love affair with Obama, and the extended spot quickly circulated from the web to TV.

Similarly, a McCain broadside against the New York Times for rejecting an op-ed submission posted on the Drudge Report and rippled through the media, generating plenty of free righteous indignation from opinion surrogates on conservative talkradio and Fox News.

Because TV viewing still far surpasses consumption of other media, Kaplan contends that television will stay the primary battle ground as candidates jockey for attention — eager to plead their case without the intruding filter of news.

All these factors brought to mind a scene from AMC’s drama “Mad Men,” where the ad agency representing Richard Nixon in the 1960 presidential race purposely bought up airtime for another client in order to make it harder for Kennedy to get his spots in a key market.

Today, with the explosion of channels — and all the ways to miss them — even Obama’s deep-pocketed field generals might yearn for the sweet simplicity of those dirty old days.

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