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The GOP's Hottest Mad Man
Time, Michael Scherer / Los Angeles
October 07, 2010
Fred Davis at his dining room table in his home in Hollywood. On the wall are his Republican clients, and on the table are his numerous Pollie and Telly awards.
Gregg Segal for TIME
Fred N. Davis III will do just about anything to get your attention, even when you are already in his office. On a recent morning in late September, Davis sits in his $2 million canary yellow mansion perched a few hundred yards downhill from the Hollywood sign. The place looks like an A-list actor's bachelor pad, as if it were decorated to mess with your mind after the after party. A stuffed two-headed calf overlooks the living room. A fox stares down on those who dare to use the toilet. Next to his desk, he has a custom-made Robert Duvall bobblehead that will start cussing at the touch of a button.
"You are either going to love us or hate us," the Oklahoma-raised Davis says with a twang, after apologizing for not sleeping much over the last several days.
These are, after all, busy times for Davis and his singular brand of irreverent marketing. In what is shaping up to be the GOP's best year since 2004, Davis has become the go-to adman for Republicans who are unknown or in deep trouble or simply want to break every rule on their way to elected office.
Already this year Davis has digitally inflated California Senator Barbara Boxer's head into a chattering hot-air balloon for one online spot; created a surprisingly successful "One Tough Nerd" campaign for Michigan gubernatorial contender Rick Snyder; and portrayed a rival California Senate primary candidate, Tom Campbell, as a sheep with demon eyes, an image so odd and amateurish that it became an instant online sensation.
When one client, Arizona's Ben Quayle, faced ruin after revelations that he had helped out a soft-porn website, Davis put Quayle in front of the camera with a jarring script: "Barack Obama is the worst President in history," said the cherub-faced Quayle, 33, who is former Vice President Dan Quayle's son. For days, national cable networks ran the clip incessantly, all but erasing the soft-porn story line. Quayle won his primary.
And on Oct. 4, Davis struck again, this time in Delaware. When Christine O'Donnell shocked the nation by winning that state's Republican Senate primary, Davis was among the first calls her campaign aides made. The Davis solution for O'Donnell, who has been beset by a long history of zany utterances as a television pundit: put her in front of a camera, light her like a movie star, and have her say, "I'm not a witch. I'm nothing you've heard. I'm you." That sparked an instant viral wave giving O'Donnell millions of dollars in free national media time. "He doesn't just push the envelope," Mark McKinnon, George W. Bush's former adman, says of Davis. "He blows it up."
Risk taking like that is old hat in the realm of corporate advertising, where animated geckos sell insurance, time machines push diet soda, and Walt Whitman hocks Levi's jeans. But risk is still something of a taboo in politics, a profession dominated by data-driven pollsters and famously insular consultants. "If you innovate and lose, it's because you innovated," explains Evan Tracey, president of the Campaign Media Analysis Group. "If you do the same old thing and lose, you had a lousy candidate."
Davis has worked with his share of lousy candidates, but he has never shied away from innovation. He was forced into the business at age 19, when his father died unexpectedly, leaving the family's Tulsa public relations business in the lurch. "I took it over as this kid with a goatee and long hair, right out of drama school in college," says Davis, who never graduated or looked back. "I wore a coat and tie, every day, for seven days a week, for 20 years. It was like Forrest Gump, honestly. I was in the right place at the right time a lot of times, and one thing led to another."
His first political client was his uncle, James Inhofe, a conservative Oklahoma Congressman running for Senate in 1994. "We basically made a deal where I wasn't going to charge him much, but he didn't get a lot to say about the ads," says Davis. "I said, 'You know, I'm in the real ad biz. In the political ad biz, you are years behind what the real ad biz is like.' " The first spot dressed prisoners as pink-clad ballerinas to dramatize a Democratic crime bill's support for federally funded dance classes. "Everybody starts with message," Davis explains. "I don't. I start with what will stand out and be remembered."
Over time, Davis found that while he loved being creative, he hated managing a large company, so instead of building a big firm, he took another route, trading the Ozarks for the Hollywood Hills, where, he says, the "really talented crews and people" all live. His firm, Strategic Perception Inc., doesn't work like other firms and has only seven full-time employees. "We never present three or four ideas, and you pick one. We present one," he says. "You have to accept that maybe the way everything has been done before is not always the best way. And you have to accept that we have never done the same campaign twice in 40 years."
The boy who had grown up staging neighborhood plays fell quickly for California's glitz and glamour, where he didn't have to wear a tie and his office address could be Mulholland Highway. He's hired Lauren Bacall, James Earl Jones and Orson Welles to do voice-overs for him, and he once knocked on Jimmy Stewart's front door to try to get him to do a corporate video. (Stewart's wife answered the door, but the answer was still no.) The Hollywood perch also allows Davis some distance from the cautionary ethos of Washington, which he still eyes warily. "There is a culture of sameness that does not allow for leaders to evolve," says Davis, who identifies himself as more fiscally than socially conservative. For a hobby, he is learning to fly a helicopter.
On this day, he is doing final edits on a spot for the Republican Governors Association. It's an economic attack on Neil Abercrombie, the Democratic candidate for Hawaii's governorship, that would be conventional if not for all the soothing music and the shot of a sunset and rolling Hawaiian surf Davis has added. The effect is jarring, like getting a Swedish massage while someone butchers a cow nearby. "People in Hawaii don't like nasty, negative politics," Davis explains. "They like calm, peaceful and reasonable analysis. So we sent a team over there, and they shot for three or four days every sunrise, every sunset and every wave they could find."
Before the Internet turned politics into an on-demand arcade, Davis tried to turn VHS tapes into viral media. In 2002, he filmed a 10-minute movie for Georgia gubernatorial candidate Sonny Perdue that depicted the sitting governor, Roy Barnes, as a giant rat with a gold chain stomping like Godzilla through downtown Atlanta. Davis screened the movie at a local theater and then sent VHS tapes in the mail to voters. When Barnes' allies denounced the attack, it became a viral hit. In addition to those who received it in the mail, thousands attempted to download the video on dial-up Internet connections, overloading the campaign's servers.
Sometimes the desire to break the box seems to take Davis too far. He will reluctantly admit today that he overdid one campaign he created for former Representative Bob Barr's ill-fated 2002 re-election campaign. "Barr is just gooder," ran the copy Davis wrote, spoken by a good-ol'-boy Georgia farmer amid unsettling closeup shots of horses. "It was a disaster," Davis admits now.
Others have criticized some of his more recent work as doing as much harm as good. Why, for example, did Davis decide to have O'Donnell deny her pagan past — she admitted in a 1999 TV segment to having "dabbled into witchcraft" — in her first campaign video? "When your client is the featured joke on the opening of Saturday Night Live, and every Friday night the country breathlessly awaits what new scandalous old tape Bill Maher will show about her, you have to draw a line in the sand," Davis says. "Say, 'From this moment forward, this race is about things that are important.'"
A recent spot he produced for John McCain showed the Senator walking the U.S.-Mexico border, announcing to a local sheriff that he wanted to "complete the danged fence," a dramatic reversal of McCain's earlier position that the barrier was a distraction. Then, to highlight his point, Davis cut in a closeup of McCain's rigid jaw. "You are selling tough," Davis explains. Bill Hillsman, a Democratic adman who makes similarly memorable spots, says Davis is one of the few in the business who really understand the value of surprise. "Fred and I would agree foursquare that it is still all about content and getting the attention of the audience," Hillsman says.
Davis oversaw all the convention videos for the GOP in 2008; when Sarah Palin asked him if her "brand" meant she should wear her hair up or down, Davis insisted on the former. The challenge of getting voters' attention in the next cycle worries Davis a bit, given the current crop of potential Republican presidential candidates for 2012. What exactly, he asks, would distinguish Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels? "I have trouble figuring out where he or Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty stand out."
In the meantime, Davis has no trouble standing out as a Republican admaker in Hollywood, willing to do what he must to win. Shortly after the 2008 election, he appeared at a local panel discussion attended by stars of stage and screen. "I got booed before I even said a word," Davis remembers, having been announced as a key strategist for McCain's presidential bid. Afterward, Jason Alexander, the actor who played George Costanza on Seinfeld, approached Davis. "As nice as humanly possible," Davis recalls, "he looked at me and he goes, 'Honestly, how do you sleep at night?' " The answer, with elections around the corner, is that Davis isn't sleeping much these days. Which is just fine with him, because the nation is paying attention.