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Creator of 'Britney' Ad Designs Somber Convention On the Fly; the Palin Factor
By MONICA LANGLE
Published: September 2, 2008
ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Just as he put the finishing touches on the Republican convention, McCain campaign adviser Fred Davis suddenly had to rip up his entire playbook for a last-minute addition to the program's cast of characters: Gustav.
Joe Fornabaio for The Wall Street Journal
McCain creative director Fred Davis.
With Hurricane Gustav hitting the U.S. Monday, Mr. Davis drastically altered the four-day "serial drama" he had developed to feature presidential candidate Sen. John McCain. Out: President George W. Bush and many Southern governors, who decided not to join the Republican hoopla with a potential tragedy looming, as well as half of the videos now deemed too "celebratory." In: hurricane reports and even a hotline flashing on stage to raise money for victims.
"Please don't let this look like a Jerry Lewis telethon," Mr. Davis, a 56-year-old veteran producer of TV commercials and occasional concerts, was overheard saying to his team here charged with the new imperative.
The McCain campaign's dramatic moves in recent days, which included adding Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin to the ticket, have helped shift the spotlight from the Democratic convention last week in Denver. Early polls gave mixed readings on how much of a bounce Sen. Barack Obama got from the Democratic convention.
Still, the moves carry high risks alongside possible high rewards. The choice of the little-known Gov. Palin has galvanized the party's previously lackluster religious base, and jump-started Internet fund raising. But Sen. McCain also is drawing criticism, including from some Republicans, for choosing a politician with no national experience, and some Republicans are worried the choice could backfire.
The little-known Gov. Palin and her family are undergoing their first scrutiny from the national press. Monday, Gov. Palin disclosed amid Internet rumors that her 17-year-old daughter, Bristol, is pregnant and plans to marry the father. Reporters and opposition researchers are fanning out over Alaska seeking more information on the governor's background and record.
The shift in the convention's first day from a partisan event to a massive storm-relief campaign -- complete with delegates assembling "comfort packages" Monday afternoon -- gave Sen. McCain a platform from which to paint himself as a presidential figure above partisanship.
But it robbed the McCain campaign of at least some of the free prime-time exposure it planned to use to build up Sen. McCain and criticize Sen. Obama. Campaign advisers concluded that any show of partisanship or politicking would look crass against a backdrop of destruction on the Gulf Coast, and risk further evoking memories of Hurricane Katrina.
A point man for dealing with the fast-changing events is Mr. Davis, who has been a behind-the-scenes and controversial creative force for Sen. McCain. It was Mr. Davis who hatched the commercial that portrayed Sen. Obama as a fluffy celebrity like Paris Hilton and Britney Spears and asked whether the Democratic candidate is ready to lead. That commercial appears to have helped propel Sen. McCain's surge in national polls.
The Obama campaign punched back with its own ad showing Sen. McCain schmoozing with TV stars. It said, "For decades, he's been Washington's biggest celebrity."
Mr. Davis, the creative director for the McCain campaign, is in charge of managing the look and feel of the convention, including the planning of the program and the production of the videos shown here. With the hurricane looming, he was grappling to put Republicans in the best light for American voters and to show sensitivity to the hurricane's potential devastation on American lives -- an important task given the low marks the Bush administration received for handling Hurricane Katrina.
"Sen. McCain wants a simple convention reflective of his own style and the tough times we're in," Mr. Davis says. "No glitz."
Hustling around the stage and meeting with politicians and stage hands here, Mr. Davis -- with his feathered and graying long hair, jeans and black linen shirt and nickname "Hollywood" -- could be mistaken for a band member of his friend Joe Cocker. In charge of the "branding" of the convention, the Hollywood-based producer designed a low stage down among the people, rather than towering above them, made for chatting rather than speechifying. He has eschewed the standard red, white and blue decor; instead the Republican elephant and logo are rust in color. Blue is banned from the logo.
Another new assignment for Mr. Davis: Create the video to introduce Sen. McCain's running mate, Gov. Palin, at the convention. With Monday's news about her daughter, filming was postponed, according to one aide. But Mr. Davis is familiar with Ms. Palin's story, having done ads that portrayed her as "a fresh face, but one tough cookie," that helped her win Alaska's governorship two years ago, campaign aides say.
"Fred Davis is the most creative person in the business -- period," says Republican media consultant Mark McKinnon, who worked with him on President Bush's re-election campaign and on the McCain campaign. Adds Dan McLagan, who's working with Mr. Davis for this year's re-election campaign of Sen. Elizabeth Dole, "There's a certain feel and look to Fred's ads that are outside the D.C.-insider box."
It isn't clear yet how Mr. Davis's image-making will play out, though. Democrats and some Republicans have criticized Mr. Davis for going negative and focusing on petty issues. Even Sen. McCain's mother, Roberta, remarked recently that the "celebrity" ads are "kinda stupid."
'The Talk of Denver'
"Democrats have no idea who Fred Davis is, but his commercials were all the talk of Denver," says David Krone, a Democrat who has retained Mr. Davis for a corporate project and chatted with friends at the Democratic convention about the "celebrity" ads. "When Fred Davis shows up helping the other side, Democrats better take him seriously."
Raised in Tulsa, Okla., Mr. Davis at 19 took over his father's small public-relations firm when he died. Early on, he told corporate clients that if their ads weren't seen and remembered, they wasted their ad dollars. For a local bank, he beat out the big agencies by showing how customers would have to travel downtown only once to pre-sign all documents, so the rest of the banking could be handled by phone. He created the slogan: "Fourth National Bank. You'll Never Come Back."
His break came when he moved to Los Angeles, and took over the account for B.U.M. brand clothing. On a gigantic Times Square billboard, he put a black-and-white photograph of Willie Gault, a football star at the time, showing him from behind without pants. With the slogan "Willie Gault left his B.U.M. behind," the ad got national publicity and was featured on the "Today" show. Other clients included Citibank, Famous Amos Chocolate Chip Cookie Co. and Lowes Hotels. He also dabbled in film and television production.
In 1994, Mr. Davis entered the world of political advertising when his uncle, conservative Republican James Inhofe, asked him to rescue his campaign for the Senate seat in Oklahoma. His 30-second TV commercial depicting grizzled convicts in ballerina tutus and pink tights portrayed his Democratic opponent as soft on crime. It put his uncle in the U.S. Senate and Mr. Davis on the political map.
"Freddy transformed my campaign, because I wasn't supposed to win," Sen. Inhofe says. "I started recommending him to Senate colleagues facing tough races."
Mr. Davis, who jokes with friends that he's the "last Republican standing in Hollywood," tells them he is a fiscal conservative and social moderate. He gained a reputation for taking big chances in his media spots, and for living in a hilltop California home overlooking the Pacific Ocean and driving a Porsche. His professional and personal style stuck out among the more staid Washington crowd for whom he crafted ads, earning him the nickname "Hollywood" among Washington politicians.
For one of the most controversial ads, Mr. Davis, using all of his client's budget, created in 2002 a commercial featuring a giant rat (representing the then-governor) plundering Georgia to attract attention for a little-known Republican candidate, Sonny Perdue. The ad turned out to be a turning point in Mr. Perdue's upset victory. In the Kentucky Republican primary last year, Mr. Davis used an allegory of a boy being picked on in a schoolyard -- a swipe at Democrats and the press picking on his client, Gov. Ernie Fletcher. Mr. Fletcher unexpectedly won the primary, but lost the general election.
In a 2006 Senate race in Tennessee, Mr. Davis mounted ads against the Democratic opponent of his Republican client, Bob Corker. Harold Ford, a young rising star from a Memphis political family who was raised in the nation's capital, was gaining on Mr. Corker. Mr. Davis cut a commercial with Mr. Corker that went: "I may not be as good-looking, but I'm from Tennessee, he's from D.C." Mr. Corker squeaked out a win. (Mr. Davis wasn't involved in a controversial ad that featured a white woman beckoning to Mr. Ford, an African-American, saying, "Harold, call me.")
In 2006, Mr. Davis also signed on to help California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose campaign was being run by Steve Schmidt, now chief strategist of the McCain campaign. According to a campaign aide, Mr. Davis told Mr. Schmidt, "I don't do normal. You'll not see the usual headlines and charges in most political ads." Instead, Mr. Davis created ads where everyone and every animal moved in backward motion when the opponent was mentioned, while images representing the governor's ideas all moved forward.
Once Sen. Obama emerged as the Democratic nominee, the McCain campaign tried several approaches to attack him: painting him as a flip-flopper, unpatriotic and too liberal. Worried that Sen. Obama was dominating media coverage, Sen. McCain put Mr. Schmidt in charge of the campaign's message, and Mr. Schmidt sought out Mr. Davis, aides say.
Change came fast. While watching the enthusiastic crowds for Sen. Obama in Europe, Mr. Schmidt pushed for a way to go on the offensive. He and fellow advisers brainstormed about turning Sen. Obama's celebrity from a positive to a negative. Mr. Davis then created a commercial showing how Sen. Obama gets the same adulation and attention as Britney Spears and Paris Hilton, not known for substance. The ad broke through the "clutter," and dominated news coverage. Says Nick Ayers, head of the Republican Governors Association, "The Schmidt-Davis combo proved powerful."
Several more "celebrity" ads subsequently hit the air waves and the Internet. The second one used Charlton Heston's Moses to scorn Sen. Obama's lofty rhetoric. Each commercial asked if Sen. Obama was ready to lead, and lambasted his stands on hot-button issues from gasoline prices to tax increases. Sen. McCain suddenly received more "YouTube" hits than his younger rival Sen. Obama.
With Monday's show thrown out the window, Mr. Davis and his team were deciding if any of the videos could be moved into another night. They were also watching news reports on the hurricane to determine whether other nights' programming would survive or be scrapped.
After the convention, campaign advisers say Mr. Davis is already planning a new round of McCain commercials.