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Can McCain's ads win an Oscar?
May 1, 2007
Fred Davis, Chairman of Strategic Perception, Inc.
HOLLYWOOD, Calif. -- Fred Davis III has little use for the trendy liberalism that dominates the Hollywood political scene. After all, he's a leading ad-maker for the presidential campaign of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), busy demonstrating his conservative bona fides to Republican primary voters. And Davis' longest-standing client is his uncle, Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), a leading skeptic of global warming.
But when it comes to the lefties' creative prowess, Davis has only praise. The opportunity to take the best of the entertainment industry's cutting-edge technologies and apply them to political campaigns keeps this son of Tulsa based in Hollywood while many of the media consulting heavy hitters remain clustered around Washington, seemingly reinforcing conventional wisdom about ad-making among themselves.
"This is a much more advanced creative thinking place," Davis said. "The technology I use here will be in D.C. any time."
His firm, Strategic Perception Inc., is among several GOP media consulting heavyweights signed up for McCain's presidential campaign. The others include the Stevens and Schriefer Group, Mark McKinnon and Stevens Reed Curcio & Potholm.
McCain's campaign probably needs all the creativity Davis can muster to turn around perceptions that it has run off track, plagued by lower than expected fundraising totals during the first quarter of 2007, continuing fallout from his support of President George W. Bush's Iraq troop "surge" policy and lingering distrust among conservative activists.
That's where Davis comes in, because he has created some of the more memorable ads of recent election cycles. Consider the 2002 spot that helped Sonny Perdue win the Georgia governorship in one of that election cycle's biggest upsets. The ad featured a giant rat romping through the Peach State, representing Democratic Gov. Roy Barnes' alleged imperiousness. The commercial became a breakout moment for Perdue, a little-known former state senator. Though outspent 6 to 1, the "King Roy" ad proved to be the great equalizer in the challenger's upset victory.
Creation of the ad was a major production and, according to colleagues, vintage Davis. It used set construction in Nashville, myriad special effects, helicopters and a Lear jet mounted with cameras strafing Georgia cities and the countryside, and a $40,000 custom-made rat suit, complete with its own air-conditioning system. (Davis got the cost cut in half to $20,000 by returning it at the end of the year to the Hollywood costume shop that made it.) Production took 45 days.
Davis' ideas are extraordinarily unique and creative, said Glen Bolger of the GOP polling firm Public Opinion Strategies, who also worked on Perdue's 2002 campaign. "He's more willing to take risks than many other consultants."
Davis also created some of the more talked about ads in the 1994 election cycle, for his uncle, then-Rep. Inhofe, when he ran for the Senate against Democratic Rep. Dave McCurdy. One of the ads used cutting-edge technology to morph McCurdy's face into that of President Bill Clinton, a very unpopular figure in Oklahoma. Another spot depicted a decrepit family sitting on their back porch in Oklahoma, drinking beer and watching a bug zapper for entertainment; the ad brought to life a statement McCurdy once made in Washington, apparently ridiculing his constituents.
The ads "were instrumental in Jim's victory," said Rick Shelby, a political consultant who worked for Inhofe and is now with the American Gas Association. "If you can use humor to take the edge off, it makes them far more effective."
Not all of Davis' moves have been winners. In 1996, he worked for the presidential campaign of Republican candidate Morry Taylor, a Midwestern industrialist who made a quixotic bid that quickly sank. Perhaps the ad man's biggest misstep came in 1998 with a commercial on behalf of Mitch Skandalakis, running for lieutenant governor of Georgia. Mark Taylor, Skandalakis' Democratic opponent, had acknowledged using cocaine and marijuana in the early 1980s while in his 20s. The attack ad showed the sign in front of the Ridgeview Institute, a Georgia drug rehabilitation center, as an announcer said, "Taylor, of course, has admitted he had problems years ago. And we all wish those problems had been cured." The ad featured an actor who resembled Taylor dressed in a tattered robe, shuffling down a long hall.
Taylor denounced the ad, insisting he had never been a rehab patient. The spot drew waves of negative attention to Skandalakis. Davis had to admit the source who suggested Taylor's drug problems continued into the '90s proved unreliable. Skandalakis immediately sank in the polls and lost to Taylor 56 percent to 39 percent. Taylor was so enraged over the ad that shortly before Election Day he sued Skandalakis for libel. The rivals ultimately settled the case, with Skandalakis agreeing to pay $50,000 to a charity.
Davis, 55, grew up in Tulsa, where his father owned a small PR firm. Davis attended Trinity College in San Antonio, but while he was visiting home at Christmas in his freshman year, his father died of a heart attack. That left Davis to take care of his three siblings. He put school on hold while trying to eke out a living for the family.
"We went from comfortably middle class to 'Uh-oh, what do we do now?'" he said.
Though Davis had no background or formal training in PR or advertising, he persuaded a couple of his father's clients to stay with him and found he had a knack for the business. He took advertising classes at night and, by age 21, had expanded the business to more than 50 employees.
While commercial advertising paid the bills, Davis wanted to focus on "things that I thought were important on a deeper level." The chance to do just that came in 1974, when Inhofe -- a state legislator for eight years -- ran for governor.
"Jim came to me," Davis recalled. "He didn't have any money."
Inhofe won an upset GOP primary victory but was overwhelmed 64 percent to 36 percent by Democrat David Boren, who would go on to serve as a U.S. senator.
For his work on his uncle's campaign, Davis got $11,000 and, more importantly, placement on the political map. "He found he had incredible talent," Inhofe said.
Throughout the next decade, Davis made his living primarily on commercial accounts but continued to experiment with commercial advertising techniques in politics. Inhofe's periodic campaigns provided plenty of testing ground in what were family affairs. During that period, Inhofe lost a 1976 congressional bid and then was elected Tulsa mayor in 1979, before being defeated five years later. In 1986, he was elected to the U.S. House for the first of five terms.
The year before, Davis had moved to Hollywood for the technological advantages, creative culture and weather. After rising through the ranks of Republican consultants, he made a splash on the national scene in 2004, when he was key ad-maker on the Bush-Cheney '04 campaign. He then worked on California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's 2006 reelection, which boosted his stock higher. "I had a good year last year, and most Republicans didn't."
Soon enough, all the major Republican presidential candidates were calling. Davis decided to go with the McCain campaign after being courted by its lead staffers, spending time with the candidate and speed-reading the senator's memoir, "Faith of My Fathers."
"I was really blown away with his background and the depth of his purpose," Davis said.
Davis said he is unconcerned by McCain's lagging fundraising totals and the problems he is having because the candidate supports Bush on the war in Iraq. Like the president's 2000 and 2004 campaigns, a long-term game plan is in place to win despite bumps in the road.
Whatever the outcome, Davis' ads for McCain, dreamed up high in the Hollywood Hills, far away from Washington, will not likely be cookie-cutter or routine.