The most active mind in Republican advertising and positioning, the Chairman of Strategic Perceptions Inc., Fred Davis, talks with Campaigns & Elections about Oklahoma, Demon Sheep, Christine O’Donnell, 2008 and the mind behind the ads that get Republicans elected.
C&E: Tell us a bit about your background.
Davis: I never thought I would be in the ad business. I though I would be an actor. I was the kid in the neighborhood growing up who put on plays for the neighbors. That was where my love was, and I picked my college based on their drama program. Then my life changed in one second, I came home for Christmas a year and a half into college at Trinity in Texas when my dad died.
So at 19, I became the bread winner of the house. First I tried to sell the business. I quickly discovered that all [prospective buyers] want is the client list. So when the 19-year-old kid walks out, they quickly call everyone on the list. For the most part, they were successful, but one client stuck by me. Every company has a seed client and they were my seed.
In 1985 moved to California, for a number of reasons. In 1994, [Davis’ Uncle] Jim Inhofe called me and said he had a crazy idea: “Boren is quitting the Senate and I’m going to run for that seat.”
I had no money and lots of control – that was the last time that I had that arrangement in my life. That’s how I was able to put convicts in ballerina tutus (the award winning “Ballerina” ad from 1994). [Jim] called me and he was livid. He thought I was sabotaging the campaign; this was not what political ads looked like. Within two or three days, people were talking about it all over the state. There was a 30 point swing towards Jim and he won a huge victory. My phone never quit ringing.
C&E: Where does the inspiration come from for an ad like Demon Sheep? And what was behind the decision to go for a web ad rather than traditional ad?
Davis: I get asked that a lot. I honestly don’t know. I was born kind of a creative guy. I look at the world differently, and I wish there was video cameras in the days when I was in plays. I remember them being pretty good! Anyone in the world can look at Tom Campbell (California Republican Senate candidate Carly Fiorina’s primary opponent) and say: “he says he is a conservative, but he is not.” They asked me and told me Tom Campbell is saying he is something that he is not, and I thought “wolf in sheep’s clothing.” From there, I didn’t think of the traditional, linear graphics and statistical citations within each image. What hits someone emotionally? What is more entertaining? What will stand out? So we did Demon Sheep, quick and cheep and didn’t think it would be seen. To the day I die I think I will be introduced as the Demon Sheep guy. To answer the second part of your question, why go with a web-ad? We had no money! We needed a quick and dirty attempt to get a point across.
C&E: Are you seeing more opportunities in web ads rather than television ads? We have been seeing a lot of long form web ads this cycle.
Davis: There have been a lot of web ads this cycle and there will be a lot forever. What I get asked often is “do you do your ads in a way that you hope they will go viral?” When I think of the words “going viral,” to me that means, “are people interested in talking about what you have done?” It doesn’t matter what you do if people end up talking about it.
We had that kind of effect with the “One Tough Nerd” campaign for (Republican gubernatorial candidate) Rick Snyder in Michigan. He had kind of this high pitched voice and he told me he was a nerd, so we thought “why not use that?”
It is entertainment, it is attention arresting. There is no difference between that and plays I did in Tulsa.
C&E: Christine O’Donnell. You knew you were stepping into a high profile race there. Was that more intimidating or an energizing challenge?
Davis: We were very busy, and I didn’t have time for a high profile race like that. But we Got call after call asking us to do it. Because that [O’Donnell’s] candidacy fits our profile – you need a long ball anytime you are twenty points down. I liked her, the minute I met her I liked her. She is fun to work with.
C&E: What was the best campaign you waged that you lost?
Davis: There are so many parts of campaigns that I have no say over – fundraising, for example. Sometimes, a candidate doesn’t raise enough money and I gnaw at my flesh because we can’t get our messages out. I know one recently was [Republican gubernatorial primary candidate] Tim James of Alabama – the ad that caused all the attention said “why are politicians spending all our money, Alabama issues driver’s licenses in 13 languages. We speak English in Alabama, if you want to live here, learn it.” That took Tim to number one.
There was an unfortunate slip in something that was said in that campaign that caused him not to win. [A rumor circulated that James was intent on firing or cutting the salary of University of Alabama coach, Nick Saban. James came in third place in the gubernatorial primary.] That was very disheartening because Tim is a wonderful guy. Because of one little thing, we didn’t win. That happens a lot, actually. It is very frustrating.
C&E: What was your fondest campaign memory?
Davis: One great one was the Paris Hilton ad for the McCain for President Campaign. As busy as we are right now, all of us say “it is nothing like 2008.” In 2008, we were doing a bunch of Senate races, the Presidential race and the 2008 Republican Presidential Convention.
A small group of us came up with the Paris Hilton ad, which was unusual. Had we [McCain’s campaign] been doing better in the polls, it would have never run. At the time, Obama was in Europe collecting accolades for a presidential campaign that he hadn’t even won, and we ran that ad and it turned the polls around right up until the economy collapsed. That was a moment of great pride for me. That whole campaign was a moment of pride for me.
C&E: Does being a Republican consultant keep you from becoming all Hollywood out there in California? Or am I wrong in assuming you have avoided going Hollywood?
Davis: I don’t really do much of that. I am a kid from Tulsa. Liz Dole always introduced me a Fred Davis from Oklahoma. I’ll tell you what it is like out here, when I was doing W’s race, every morning I would put a W. sign in my yard and I would come back in the late in the evening and it would be gone. That happened every day for a year. Every single day someone stole my yard sign. I wanted to put a note on them saying “hey, wake up! I have an unlimited supply. I can have them flown in if I want.”
I have never been able to put a bumper sticker for one of my clients on my car for fear it would get keyed. In my office in the Hollywood Hills, I had a McCain/Palin yard sign that I wouldn’t dare put out in front of the place. It is just a different culture here. I may not be as socially conservative as some of my clients, but I don’t’ really tell people here what I do.
I think Republicans are right. I think, in general, the liberals are wrong, but there is a lot of ground in between. I have my own personal views, and I bet my clients don’t know them. We don’t talk about it. I am in this business to get people elected, not to impose my will.
C&E: Do you have any closing thoughts for our audience?
Davis: I have enjoyed this. We have a saying in this business, “if you don’t want me to see it, why put it on the air.” That is the key to our business. I am always elated when someone asks me about the grief I get for some of my stuff. No. If I do something that 50 percent of the world hates and writes about and beats me up over, then I have done a good job because the other 50 percent will like it. So my job is to get about 52 percent of people to like it and 48 to hate it and my guys win.