Strategic Perception, Inc.

Morning Fix: The Boxer blimp, the Demon Sheep and Fred Davis

Chris Cillizza
Washingtonpost.com the fix
March 15, 2010

At this weekend's Republican convention in California, former Hewlett Packard Executive Carly Fiorina unveiled a nearly eight-minute video portraying Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) as a blimp.

Yup, you read that right. A blimp.

The video is the latest offering from California-based media consultant Fred Davis -- a man who, by his own admission, marches to the beat of a different drummer.

"The initial impact is 'Fred's insane'," said Davis of his web videos in an interview with the Fix earlier today. "But, it sticks around."

Davis knows of what he speaks. Back in 1998, he and his firm -- Strategic Perception -- posted a web video portraying then Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes (D) as a giant rat, marauding across the Peach State.

People laughed (who wouldn't?) but the image of an imperious Barnes stuck and little known state Sen. Sonny Perdue (Davis' client) catapulted to the most shocking upset of the 1998 2002 election.

So influential was the "King Roy" web video that more than a decade later it lingers in the Georgia political scene. With Barnes running for governor again in 2010, state Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine, who is seeking the Republican gubernatorial nod, posted a video entitled "The Ox vs King Roy the Rat".

(One of the great "missing links" on You Tube is that there is no copy of the "King Roy" video. Or at least none that we could find.)

The lesson Davis took from the "King Roy" success was "you have to get attention first," he said, adding: "If you don't get [voters'] attention why the hell are you spending a dime?"

While Davis has had his fair share of hits with this oddball approach -- "King Roy", the "Hair" ads in the Illinois governor's race -- he's also swung and missed too.

In 2008, Davis produced a web video for Texas Sen. John Cornyn, which ran only at the state party convention, that portrayed the Republican incumbent as a rough and tough cowboy named "Big, bad John" -- and also featured a sort of spoken-word, rhyming sound track. (If you haven't ever seen it, watch it. Immediately.)

The video, which Davis said he never thought would be seen by anyone outside of the convention hall, went viral -- and not in a good way for Cornyn. While the web video didn't help Cornyn, there's little evidence it hurt him in a meaningful way either as he was re-elected by 12 points in November 2008.

(Davis also does plenty of more traditional ads. He was the lead ad guy for Sen. John McCain's 2008 presidential race, worked on President George W. Bush's 2004 re-election bid and handles media for a passel of U.S. Senators and governors.)

Davis, unbowed by the Cornyn controversy, went even bigger (and stranger) with a web ad for Fiorina earlier this year picturing former Rep. Tom Campbell, one of Fiorina's Senate primary opponents, as a wolf's in sheep clothing -- literally. And, as an added bonus, the sheep's eyes turned a demonic red in the video.

The "Demon Sheep" video became instantly famous/infamous online with more than 720,000 views on You Tube as of press time.

While Davis insisted that the press regarding "Demon Sheep" wasn't entirely negative, he acknowledged that the "demon sheep got demonized to such an extent" that the campaign decided to skip a planned video that would have served as "intermediary step" between it and the Boxer blimp video.

Davis argued that the Boxer blimp video was a long calculated move -- he said he presented it to the campaign last October -- aimed at "encapsulating in one place exactly how we want the race to be perceived."

The method behind Davis' (perceived) madness? That television ads in California are stunningly expensive -- $4-5 million a week -- and, short of spending those sorts of sums, the best way to get voters' attention is via these admittedly odd videos.

"People see them," said Davis. "That's what it boils down to."