It’s an April afternoon in Hollywood, and a black Porsche purrs down a sun-drenched Olive Avenue. It cruises past Warner Brothers, where John Wayne once glared down desperadoes at high noon. It turns down Barham Boulevard and races past Universal Studios, where Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” still roams the waters. The car winds up Lake Hollywood Boulevard, coming to rest at a bright, multistory yellow house. It’s a stone’s throw from the “Hollywood” sign that’s lured aspiring stars to Los Angeles since the 1930s.
The driver’s door opens, and out steps a thin, handsome man in his mid 50s. With shoulder-length silver hair and deep blue eyes, he’s dressed in studio business casual — blue polo shirt and black jeans with frayed cuffs. He’s reached his home office, and it’s probably no surprise that this man — who lives and works at the center of the world’s entertainment industry — is a filmmaker who knows a thing or two about movie magic.
But this filmmaker hasn’t brought tales of extraterrestrials or talking animals to the silver screen. Instead, he has brought a Hollywood sensibility to a line of work more associated with Washington D.C. than Southern California — the world of political advertising. In one of this man’s ads, a Georgia governor is depicted as a giant rat with a tiara, running through the streets of Atlanta and imperiously telling people what to do. In another, a Senate candidate in California turns into a wolf in sheep’s clothing. And not just any wolf, but one with red laser-beam eyes — a controversial creation political and media observers quickly dubbed the “Demon Sheep.“
The creator of these monsters and purveyor of these viral video memes is Fred Davis, CEO of Strategic Perception, one of the few political consultants to share an area code with Brad Pitt and James Cameron. Davis serves as advertising advisor to Republican Party stars, including California’s Senate challenger Carly Fiorina and John McCain. While most of the heavy hitters in his business congregate in the Beltway, Davis finds creative inspiration in a world that’s less Harry Reid and more Harry Potter.
“I love movies. I love having the ArcLight, the Cinerama Dome and Mann’s Chinese Theater right down the street,” says Davis, who moved to Hollywood from his native Oklahoma in 1985.
As Davis entered the world of Republican political advertising, Newt Gingrich led the GOP to a conquest of Congress, gaining 54 seats in the House of Representatives and eight in the Senate in 1994. That year, Davis — who had worked in commercial advertising since the mid-70s — crafted ads for his uncle, Republican James Inhofe. Inhofe, a stalwart conservative who later became famous for proclaiming global warming a “hoax,” was running against Democrat David McCurdy for a U.S. Senate seat in Oklahoma. Davis decided the winning strategy was to focus on McCurdy’s support for the Clinton Administration’s crime bill, which Davis thought would strike Oklahoma voters as “soft on crime.”
Davis seized on one provision of the bill, which stipulated that community activities like dance lessons could help prevent crime. His pitch for Inhofe extrapolated on this claim with an absurdist 30-second spot. Instead of hiring commercial actors, Davis had real-life Oklahoma convicts on one-day furlough playing parts. In an inspired bit of political theater, Davis dressed these inmates in pink tutus and had them pirouetting to the tune of Johann Strauss’ “The Blue Danube Waltz.” In the background, a warden shook his head in disgust and pounded a billy club into his hands. The main political message in the commercial was that the Oklahoma Fraternal Order of Police had endorsed Inhofe, but what most Oklahoma voters remembered was the bizarre way Davis managed to make a standard political talking point stand out.
Davis isn’t the first political advertising director to turn the rhetorical volume up to full blast. Eugene Jones’ TV ads for Richard Nixon’s 1968 campaign juxtaposed pictures of Democratic nominee Hubert Humphrey with bloody images from the Chicago Democratic Convention. The tagline: “Vote like your whole world depends on it.” And Lyndon Johnson’s ad director Tony Schwartz suggested, not so subtly, that a vote for Barry Goldwater was a vote for nuclear war. Schwartz’s harrowing, unforgettable 30-second “Daisy” commercial featured a girl pulling petals off a flower before she evaporated into an atomic mushroom cloud. But while Davis’ craft of political theater is not new, he has a particular talent that’s at a premium in our image-saturated 21st century. Davis’ ads have a way of making even a distracted viewer — whether he’s watching television at the gym or surfing YouTube while at his work cubicle — stop and say, “Did I just see what I think I saw?” And then post it on Facebook, tweet it, and share the experience with his entire online social network.
“To me, being creative means doing something that disrupts the norm,” Davis said, while sprawled on a black and white chaise lounge in his office overlooking the Sunset Strip. “This isn’t crazy for the sake of being crazy. It’s being different for the sake of being noticed.”
For the last 16 years, Republicans running for governor, senator and president have all turned to Davis for the political equivalent of the “black swan effect,” rare events that capture the viewer’s attention. In 2004, the straight-laced, somewhat boring Iowa senator Chuck Grassley coasted to re-election with Davis ads that featured the senator mowing his own lawn. (These were apparently some of George W. Bush’s favorite ads, and the president asked Grassley to mow the White House lawn during an Iowa campaign appearance.) In 2006, Davis’ ads for Arnold Schwarzenegger depicted a California where everyone moved backwards — which, the narrator explained, would be precisely what happened if Schwarzenegger’s opponent won. Davis’ ads for John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign turned Barack Obama’s “celebrity” status against him, lumping him together with starlets Paris Hilton and Britney Spears as people who were famous for no apparent reason.
Those “celebrity” ads changed the momentum of the presidential campaign, which had begun to play like a coronation of Barack Obama. The commercial features huge crowds lining the streets of Berlin, yearning for a glimpse of a cult of personality. Davis placed the vacuous Spears and Hilton on either side of Obama in this pantheon. In a slow-motion tableau, the blond pop singer dissolves into a platinum blond debutante, who then dissolves into the “celebrity candidate.”
Davis said he’d considered Oprah Winfrey for one of the celebrity foils, but thought better of it. (Everyone loves Oprah.) As the scene with Spears, Hilton and Obama progresses, a series of paparazzi flashbulbs snap and sizzle. “Barack Obama is the biggest celebrity in the world,” a maternal sounding female narrator admits, before asking, with pitch-perfect skepticism: “But is he ready to lead?” Obama won the election, of course, but these midsummer ads helped a moribund McCain campaign change the tenor of conversation and gain some traction in the polls.
Davis says these ads utilize “neuromarketing,” appeals to people’s visceral rather than cerebral instincts. Davis insists those instincts play the deciding role when individuals enter the voting booth. He draws on California’s current senatorial race — where he’s working hard to craft ads that reinforce voter perceptions — to make his point.
“It matters whether your gut thinks [former Congressman] Tom Campbell is shifty or Barbara Boxer is evil or Carly Fiorina seems nice. That’s where you’ll place your vote,” he says in a twang that hints at his Oklahoma upbringing. “We’ve had a pretty decent success rate in campaigns, and it’s all based on that principle of neuromarketing.”
One of Davis’ most recent exercises in neuromarketing came in March. On a Friday afternoon, the high-ceiling lobby of the Santa Clara Hyatt echoed with sounds of storytelling. Men and women in navy blue business suits were arrayed in two and threes around a cocktail lounge. They toggled cell phones with two-thumbed dexterity, breaking occasionally to exchange business cards.
On the television screen above the bar, a Fox News anchor was carrying on in closed-captioned silence about the latest iteration of Barack Obama’s health care bill. In an adjacent conference hall, sat parked a silver charter bus emblazoned with the words “Tea Party Express,” the centerpiece of a rally scheduled for the next day. A young man in a blazer handed out brochures featuring Edward Munch’s “Scream,” captioned “Jerry Brown for California?”
This was not a Silicon Valley meeting of software engineers or smart phone innovators. The California Republicans were in town for their annual convention. Campaign signs covered every square inch of the Hyatt halls, the same signs that will eventually find their way to lawns and lampposts across the state. But one pitch stood out from this crowd of standard slogan-based tradition political advertising. It was a three-by-four foot poster that belonged more in a movie marquee case than in a convention hall. It featured 1950s-style black-and-white photos of women recoiling from some unseen science fiction villain — perhaps Godzilla, a beady-eyed Martian or the Blob. “You won’t believe your eyes!” the tagline warned. The assembled Republicans were not, however, trembling at the thought of a 100-foot-tall radioactive lizard or visitors from another planet. Their nightmare was Barbara Boxer, California’s Democratic Senator since 1993.
With this poster, Fred Davis had left his calling card. It announced the world premiere of his 7-minute, 30-second film “Hot Air,” with Republicans’ nemesis Boxer in the starring role. Davis promised to have GOP moviegoers cowering in their seats, horrified by a monster terrorizing the state with job-killing taxes and intrusive environmental regulations.
The following afternoon, Davis and his client Fiorina raised the curtain on their horror show. As the lights dimmed in a ballroom filled with Republican donors and operatives, the film opened with a grainy-black-and-white view of the U.S. Capitol rotunda enshrouded in storm clouds. A flock of birds, summoned from the visual vocabulary of Alfred Hitchcock, flew across the screen, fluttering their wings and perching in the foreground. “No one knows from whence it came,” a narrator warned in ominous basso profundo. With a slow crescendo, a score of shrill violins, thunderous trombones and ponderous tympani underscored the impending sense of dread.
“No!” someone shouted from the partisan peanut gallery, to a chorus of laughter.
The scene switched to Boxer in her younger incarnation as a Marin County supervisor in the 1980s. The narrator warned that “the warm glow of attention” started going to Boxer’s head when Californians elected her to the U.S. Senate. And within the first 30 seconds, the film’s central science fiction conceit revealed itself: Boxer’s head has swollen to epic proportions, lifting her, dirigible-like, off the Senate floor. This “Boxer Blimp” crashes through the Capitol rotunda, floats past the Washington Monument and, as that narrator warns us, “drifts westward, to tell us how to live our lives.”
Whether or not it’s part of an effective political campaign, an enormous computer-generated Boxer blimp head certainly makes an impression. Every journalist filing a story from the convention made mention of the Boxer Blimp, as it added color to otherwise dull proceedings full of briefings on tax policy or agricultural subsidies.
“Did I ever walk down the street and see a blimp and think that would be interesting with Barbara Boxer’s face on it? Well, no,” Davis said later. “But I do remember when I was younger watching ‘Blade Runner’ and remembering that talking, floating thing over the scenes. I remember that. So I do go back and pick up things that were different and unique at different times in my life and broke the norm.”
As the “Hot Air” film continues, the Boxer blimp drifts over the Golden Gate Bridge, the Los Angeles skyline and other familiar stretches of California landscape. Sunbathers are swallowed in the wake of the blimp’s enormous shadow. Occasionally, the Boxer blimp parrots a sound bite that evoked a hiss from this crowd of Republicans: “To stimulate the economy, you do increase government spending” or “One of the very important national security issues we face, frankly, is climate change.” If you listen carefully, you can pick up the sound of another movie monster: the raspy inhalation of Darth Vader from “Star Wars.” For the Republican faithful, the Boxer Blimp is the political equivalent of the Death Star.
Close to the halfway point in the film, we reach the fulcrum in the story. The clouds lift, warm light returns to the frame, and a piano leavens the mood with a frisky allegro. We meet Fiorina, who beams with energy. The narrator tells us Fiorina is a “5-foot-6-inch fireball” who ran Hewlett Packard, one of the world’s leading technology companies. Throughout the rest of the film, this fireball strides confidently through boardrooms, pausing to look into the camera and tell the voters, “This isn’t about talking, it’s about getting things done!”
As the narrator runs through Fiorina’s resume (“She moved, she shaked, she accomplished”), the Boxer Blimp slowly deflates, ultimately crashing headlong into the Pacific Ocean. For Republicans hoping 2010 will be a landslide year that stops the Obama Administration in its tracks, Fiorina’s “Hot Air” earned a hearty ovation. It also resonated deep beyond the auditorium, to the more than 400,000 people who watched it on YouTube and countless others who saw excerpts of it on political talk shows and evening news broadcasts.
After “Hot Air” fired up the crowd, Fiorina seized the moment and strode to the dais in a fire-red gown. Young supporters in red “Carly for California” T-shirts ringed the stage and applauded as the candidate excoriated Boxer for lost jobs, government waste, and environmental regulations that hurt California farmers. After fifteen minutes of this Republican litany, Fiorina left the stage like a rock star to the tune of Van Halen. Davis looked on approvingly.
“Carly is a marketer, Carly gets it, she’s really smart,” Davis said later. “Hewlett-Packard is a marketing company. They’re a technology company, but they’re 50 percent marketing. So she totally gets it — she’s not a career politician.”
Back in Hollywood, Davis occupies the control center at his company’s corporate offices. He has an assistant, but most of his communications with staff and clients — this morning in Tulsa and Tennessee, respectively — take place in cyberspace. The street outside is quiet, though tourists from around the county occasionally drive by in search of a closer glimpse of the Hollywood sign. Inside, three rows of photographs of former clients — including Elizabeth Dole, Lamar Alexander and Dan Quayle — adorn a wall of fame. Prints of Sylvester and Tweety Bird hang on the adjacent wall, next to several shelves of commercial and political advertising awards Davis has won over the years. Mounted animal heads adorn the space above a staircase, but Davis says he’s not a hunter, he just collects taxidermy. (He seems more interested in gathering Democratic scalps.)
In conversation, Davis’ focuses on atmospherics — what he calls the “pixie dust” of political advertising. But he works in policy details, too. “This guy voted for TARP,” the government bailout package many voters dislike. Or he explains, “No Republican is going to stand up and say they’re for government takeover of health care.” But it’s setting a scene and evoking a mood where Davis really excels. Davis’ choice of music in the ads for one of his favorite clients — the late Senator Paul Coverdell of Georgia — illustrates the point.
“I started telling [Coverdell] about when my dad took me to the Cineramadome in Oklahoma City to see a movie called ‘The Alamo,’” Davis said. “And one of the favorite feelings I’ve ever gotten was from the theme from ‘The Alamo’” I want your music” — he told the senator — “to emit the same feeling that I had when I was a kid and drove 100 miles to see that movie.”
“The Alamo” always sounded like a Sonata Americana to Davis’ young ears, but Coverdell told Davis that “The Alamo” theme song was based on “Greensleeves,” which has taken on a respectable aura through so many Shakespearean appropriations. But, as Coverdell explained with impish delight, “Greensleeves” was actually written for one of Henry VIII’s courtesans. “We always got a big laugh out of the fact that his re-elections were scored to a French whore’s song,” Davis says with a sheepish grin.
“The Alamo” still looms large in Davis’ imagination, and pride of place is reserved on a wall of Davis’ office for a poster of the 1960 film. But in this version of the poster, Davis has been airbrushed in where John Wayne would otherwise be, and John McCain and other characters from the 2008 campaign were added to the background.
Each week, Davis spends much of his time on the phone with staff in his satellite offices in D.C., Austin and Tulsa. On the day of my visit, he and his team were on a conference call with a Tennessee gubernatorial candidate’s team trying to pin down the specifics for a three-day commercial shoot next week. Then he clacked away at the keyboard, firing off some e-mails to McCain’s campaign people about how many times to use the word “conservative” in an ad for the Arizona Republican primary, where Senator McCain faces an primary challenge from a Tea Party candidate. Davis receives hundreds of e-mails a day, all about the minutiae of messages he’s constructing for his clients. In the 24-hour news cycle, a campaign often has to shift gears instantly to address what the other side is saying.
“It’s a chess game,” he says with delight. “You don’t know until that guy makes his move what your next move will be. My strategy is to have a lot of arrows in my quiver. You look at the whole race and say — we’re going to get hit with this and this — especially if there’s a Fred Davis on the other side who’s going to look for the unusual and different.”
Davis knows he comes under fire from people who criticize his brand of political advertising as a cheapening of political discourse. “What you’re seeing is a campaign that is constantly going over the top. One that’s short on substance,” Fiorina opponent Chuck DeVore complained to a Republican convention press corps. DeVore’s complaints notwithstanding, the reporters all seemed far more interested in Fiorina’s advertising baubles than Devore’s position on Assembly Bill 32.
Davis responds to such criticisms by saying that voting for someone and deciding what soap to buy are not governed by the exact same cognitive processes, but that there are similarities politicians would be foolish to ignore. He chalks it up to the rules of the game, a game he learned in more than two decades of corporate advertising.
“I didn’t select how people decide what car they’re going to drive, or how they decide whether they are going to bank at Bank of America or Wells Fargo. Modern communications, modern advertising, modern tools of persuasion have set the standard,” Davis said. “All I think we do is use them in a very effective way. We’re one of the few in the political world that gets it, and probably because I had to compete with all those ad people for many years.”
Davis has a shelf full of awards for commercial ads for corporate clients, which over the years have included ARCO, Goodyear and the National Cable and Telecommunications Association. He says that about 20 percent of his business still comes from corporate clients, but that his work on political advertising has allowed him to align his professional work with his political beliefs. He’s honed the skill of the pitch to advertise how Republicans differ from Democrats, something he sees as more important than whether someone buys a Ford or Chevy pickup.
“When I got into political advertising in a big way, what I was selling was important to people,” Davis says. “It mattered whether people had more money or less money to go to the movies out of their paycheck, it mattered whether they could get decent health care, depending on who they vote for. I think the outcome of what we do has the potential to make people’s lives better of worse. It has a big impact on people’s lives.”
Davis likes to think the demon sheep and Boxer blimps might serve as vehicles to these ends. Lest Davis be pigeonholed as a one-trick-pony, a purveyor of stock villains designed to cast fear into the heart of heartland voters, take a look at his ad for Rick Snyder, a 2010 Republican candidate for governor in Michigan. The 60-second Snyder commercial aired during the Super Bowl in February, and featured none of the monstrous miscreants that graced Davis’ ads for Carly Fiorina. Instead, bleak, black-and-white scenes of rusted-out industrial hulks flash across the screen, as a narrator informs Michigan voters that their state has the worst unemployment problem in the country.
As the ad unfolds, we’re introduced to Snyder, the brainy former CEO of Gateway Computers, through a series of photo snapshots. In one, a bespectacled Snyder reads from Fortune magazine before his ninth birthday. A few seconds later, a 23-year-old Snyder sticks his tongue out at the camera — right after smarty-pants Snyder finished his BA, MBA and law degree at the University of Michigan. Then we see him in front of computer mainframes that look sophisticated enough to launch the Space Shuttle.
Toward the end of the ad, Snyder types away at his computer, working on a 10-point plan for Michigan that’s so detailed “that no politician can understand it.” Snyder’s own grating, nasal voice provides an off-key harmony to this soundtrack, a love ballad to our society’s secret, unspoken crush on pocket-protector-wearing poindexters. In the closing frame, the central character tries to look menacing, but his cardinal-red cardigan blows his cover. “Rick Snyder,” the narrator intones. “He’s one tough nerd.”
But even if Davis can make these more endearing commercials, a certain mutant strain still lurks in his political advertising DNA. He works, after all, in the town that’s given us King Kong, Frankenstein and Dracula. And how does the conservative Davis get along in Hollywood, a town known more for liberal political figures like Barbra Streisand and Warren Beatty?
Davis says that when he was working on ads for the 2004 Bush re-election campaign, he would put a Bush yard sign every morning by his office. And, without fail, the sign would be gone by nightfall, removed by neighbors who wanted no trace of Republicans in their tony neighborhood. He wanted to put a sign up, he says, that read, “You fools, I work for the campaign — I have an unlimited supply of yard signs!”
John Grennan is a student at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. He has worked as a writer and editor dealing with politics and international affairs at Talking Points Memo, Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.