Tips From the GOP's Most Notorious Ad Man
It's the most talked about political attack ad that never ran.
On May 17, The New York Times published online a 54-page plan, which had been leaked to the paper, outlining an anti-Obama ad campaign entitled "The Defeat of Barack Hussein Obama." Intended for only a few sets of eyes, the leaked document included a storyboard for a television spot that would draw attention to President Obama's relationship with his controversial former pastor Reverend Jeremiah Wright.
The plan referred to Obama as a "metrosexual black Abe Lincoln," and claimed it would "properly exploit and explain" why Obama's connection to Wright made him unfit for reelection. Notes accompanying the storyboard warned, "Prepare for a great deal of howling and gnashing of teeth from all the usual suspects."
That last part, at least, proved prophetic.
The backlash, once the story broke, was mighty, and the principle target of the outrage was none other than the author of the proposal, Fred Davis. Notorious in political circles, he's the advertising guru behind some of the Republican party's most memorable (if often nasty) attack ads and founder of the Hollywood-based ad agency Strategic Perception.
During his 18-year career in political advertising, Davis's ads have won Strategic Perception 43 Pollie Awards--political consultants' version of the Oscars--including seven awards in the category "Best Use of Negative Contrast." He's worked for the likes of George W. Bush, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and, in 2008, he was chief creative consultant for Senator John McCain's presidential campaign. This year, before submitting the now infamous proposal to a Super PAC called Ending Spending, which was funded by TD Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts, Davis also worked for John Huntsman's primary race.
But in May, the notoriety surrounding the leaked proposal brought Davis's presidential work this year to an early conclusion.
"It felt like my life was ending," Davis, whose charming Oklahoma twang seems unfitting for such a scandal-laden business, told Inc. "To have a plan you think four people will read go to four million people instead…It was absolutely terrible."
Painful as the ordeal was for Davis and the public figures the proposal vilified (John McCain was described as "a crusty old politician who often seemed confused"), the leak did provide a first-hand glimpse into how one of the GOP's most successful ad men works.
Love him or hate him, there's no denying Fred Davis knows how to get a message across.
Davis entered the world of politics nine years after founding Strategic Perception in 1985. Initially, the company focused on corporate clients. It wasn't until 1994, when Davis's uncle--then-Oklahoma Congressman Jim Inhofe--ran for U.S. Senate that Strategic began producing political ads. At the time, Bill Clinton was running for reelection, bolstered by what Davis describes as an "enormously popular" plan to put 100,000 new cops on the street. "Everyone loved it," Davis says, "and it was bad for Republicans running for office."
So, Davis asked a Strategic employee to examine the bill, top to bottom.
"He read every word and found that some of the money was going to provide dance lessons for convicts," Davis says. "It was the most ludicrous thing I'd ever heard."
It gave Davis an idea. He hired a handful of ex-convicts from a local halfway house to dress up in ballet tutus and dance around a room for a 33-second ad that slammed Clinton's proposal and, subsequently, made Davis famous.
And thus, the trademark Fred Davis style was born. It hinges on a careful balance of humor, absurdity, and Davis's belief that, "If people don't talk about, fight, cry, and laugh over your ads, you've wasted your money."
True to that motto, Davis says he writes every ad hoping it will take on a life of its own. Perhaps that's why, in the leaked proposal, Davis wrote that inciting outrage in the "liberal press" would give Strategic "enormous free airtime" that would "dramatically [extend] the reach of $10 million," the allotted budget for the ad campaign. As it turned out, the ad was so salacious, it spread before any money was spent on it at all.
Designing ads to go viral is a deliberate cost-optimizing strategy Davis has used again and again. The 2008 ad Davis wrote for John McCain entitled "Celeb," which called Obama "the biggest celebrity in the world," while rolling video of Britney Spears and Paris Hilton, was played more than 2.4 million times on YouTube.
Davis says the key to achieving such viral success is twofold. First, appeal to viewers' emotions.
"If you can find one emotion to really play up in your communication with your customer, then you will succeed," he says. "The reason Budweiser does so well at the Super Bowl is it uses humor. People watch the Super Bowl just to see those ads. That is advertising money well spent."
He also advises giving ads a consistent style. All of Strategic's ads, for instance, have the same quirky humor. That distinguishes them from the industry norm, which typically intersperse gloomy headlines with damning facts about the opponent.
"They all look alike, and that's not what you want," Davis says. "What you want is for someone to walk through a room, not even see the television, and know from the music, the voice, or the style that it's your ad."
For now, Davis is focusing on senate and gubernatorial races, which he says give him time to sit back and "let other people battle it out." But that doesn't mean he's out of the game for good. Davis expects more presidential work in the future, if not before the November election. That's because, he says, the campaigns know, for better or worse, a Fred Davis ad gets attention.
"Sometimes we cause a ruckus, and sometimes we don't," he says, "but we always, always stand out."