Washington — Brace yourselves, TV viewers! Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale are about to join corn flakes, soap powder, and shampoo as some of the biggest advertisers on the tube.
It'll be a TV blitz. During the final few weeks of this campaign, Mr. Reagan and Mr. Mondale will be using a large chunk of their television budgets (which total about $25 million each) to grab your attention during shows like ''Dynasty ,'' ''T. J. Hooker,'' and ''Mike Hammer.''
The Reagan campaign has more than 80 different TV spots already filmed. About half the Reagan TV budget will go into network, prime-time shows. The rest will go onto local television.
The Mondale campaign will be featuring a new TV spot this week that says the Republicans have divided the country into ''Ronald Reagan's America'' (the rich) and ''the real America'' (where ''millions have no job at all'').
Newspapers and radio, once prime recipients of political dollars, lose out in this race. Both Reagan and Mondale have elected TV as their principal medium.
The torrent of television commercials serves a key political role at this point in the race. Earlier, candidates could pick and choose their targets - a day in Illinois, two days in California, a three-day swing through the South.
The remaining days, however, have dwindled down to a precious few. With only three weeks left, and with several days being set aside to prepare for their next debate, there isn't enough time to be everywhere. Except on TV.
TV commercials get a tremendous amount of attention. They may annoy, infuriate, amuse, bemuse, educate, mislead - just like those ads for everyday items like breakfast cereal and soft drinks.
In fact, Mondale campaign manager Robert Beckel derides Reagan's TV commercials as ''Pepsi ads,'' a reference to the similar patriotic themes sometimes struck on TV by soft-drink companies.
Despite the ubiquitousness of these ads, experts doubt they do much to change your vote from Reagan to Mondale, or vice versa.
Michael Robinson, a media specialist at George Washington University, reminds us that there have been a host of examples this year showing that dollars spent don't automatically mean votes won.
An example: Gary Hart's showdown with Walter Mondale. It was the candidate who spent the smaller amount who won 8 out of 13 major primaries in the first part of the year.
In New York, for example, Mondale clobbered Senator Hart, even though Hart outspent Mondale, $1.16 million to $554,000. In New Jersey, where Hart spent $ 854,000, he was again trounced, even though Mondale put in only $368,000. On the other hand, Mondale lost New Hampshire to Hart even though Mondale spent $75,000 more in that small state.
What all this means is that Mondale cannot reasonably expect to win the election Nov. 6 merely by far outspending Reagan in these final weeks. Likewise, Reagan cannot reverse a tide against him, if one develops, just with some Madison Avenue hype. Says Dr. Robinson: ''Free media (news stories) is always more important than paid media (ads).''
The professor ranks four things that can influence an election. Paid media is at the bottom of his list.
First and foremost, events influence elections. A war, a booming economy, a depression - all of these are critical.
Second, a semi-event, such as a presidential debate, can be important. While some commentators dismiss the Reagan-Mondale discussions as ''not real debates, '' they can be pivotal, Robinson says.
Third, there is what Robinson calls ''media spin.'' If reporters constantly harp on how badly things are going, if TV news reports put a negative twist on the close of a story, that is ''spin.'' It can influence an election. But it's far less important than real events.
Fourth and last, there are ads. ''So much media is free that it neutralizes those ads,'' says the professor. ''No one trusts them. No one believes them. Most people think they are something to do with theater.''
It should be noted that ads can be important in smaller races, such as those for the House of Representatives. House races don't get on TV or in the newspapers very much. So ads can help.
Even so, Mondale manager Beckel thinks the ads are so critical at this juncture that in the next few days he is personally taking over the job of supervising the paid media campaign.
Over the weekend, he began airing an ad that he thinks hits one of Reagan's sensitive points: the President's links to the Rev. Jerry Falwell of the Moral Majority. The ad, accompanied by eerie music, says:
''Rev. Jerry Falwell and President Reagan cordially invite you to join their party on Nov. 6. Here's all you have to believe in: Secret war in Central America; new Supreme Court justices must rule abortion a crime even in cases of rape and incest; no equal-rights amendment for women; no verifiable nuclear freeze.
''Think about the people who have taken over the Republican Party. They want their new platform to be your new constitution.''
Republicans are keeping their new ads under wraps. They won't share them with reporters. But one Reagan aide says:
''We are certainly not going to let Mondale get away with his $85 billion tax increase.''
Up to now, the Reagan campaign has tried to avoid negative ads. Patriotism, colorful scenes, and shots of Mr. Reagan have been the main features. The ads are expected to become more biting in the next couple of weeks, however.
A Reagan official refuses to characterize the tougher ads as negative. ''They will not be nasty,'' he says, ''but we do plan to tear away some of Walter Mondale's many masks.''
Next: Special-interest money, TV, and the race for the White House.