Fred Davis, GOP's ad wizard spins tempting tales and viral videos for candidates

Fred Davis injects Hollywood glamour, and a dose of the bizarre, into the staid, paint-by-numbers formula of campaign advertisements. He has created popular, and effective, ads for such high-profile Republicans as Sen. John McCain, Carly Fiorina and his uncle, Sen. Jim Inhofe.
By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 22, 2010

HOLLYWOOD -- It's early on a Sunday morning and Fred Davis, perhaps the most sought-after ad man in politics, wants his client in the zone. "Today will be a battle between toughness and twinkle," he e-mails Carly Fiorina, the Republican Senate hopeful in California. She pings him back: "I'll come twinkle in hand."

Soon, Fiorina arrives at a large soundstage near the Paramount Pictures lot here to film a series of campaign spots, and Davis is scurrying across the set, a stopwatch dangling from his neck, assembling the crew of more than two dozen. He is the campaign's creative director, and this is the big show.

Are the scripts loaded onto the teleprompter? Check. Is the fog machine working? Check. Is Fiorina's black stool at center stage? Check. The caterers are serving coffee and breakfast burritos. The makeup girl is waiting in a mirrored side room. The fashion photographer Philip Dixon, whom Davis praises as being "up there with Annie Leibovitz," is breezing around in his signature hippie-pajamas ensemble adjusting two massive floodlights that he will beam against a white wall to delicately light the candidate's face.

"I want it to look perfect -- as good as anything in Vogue," Davis says. "This is how you shoot a Hollywood movie. This is not how you shoot a political ad."

Davis is orchestrating a simple shot. Fiorina, alone, speaks to the camera against a dark, moodily lit backdrop, her hazel eyes twinkling as commanded. A tech turns on the fog machine. In the blue light, the effect is ethereal. Fiorina, the tough, smack-talking former Hewlett-Packard chief executive, is transformed into a delicate angel.

This is Fred Davis, hi-def political provocateur. You have probably never heard his name. Your senator probably has. A pioneering imagemaker in modern politics, Davis injects Hollywood glamour, and a dose of the bizarre, into the staid, paint-by-numbers formula of campaign advertisements. His ads are unforgettable. His candidates win races. So many politicians seek his services that he has to turn away business.

Davis, who grew up in conservative Oklahoma and is the nephew of Sen. James M. Inhofe (R), works only for Republicans. He controls every detail of his ad shoots and writes the scripts. He pushes and pleads with his nervous, starchy candidates to try ideas that other strategists would dismiss as too out-there. He sends out flurries of e-mails in the middle of the night. He talks a lot. His favorite word is "crazy." He uses many exclamation points in a row!!!!!!!

But his attention-getting tactics veer toward the extreme -- in volume, in imagery, in divisive language -- and even his highest-profile candidates have to tell him when he's gone too far. Of course, not every candidate is so restrained. When Davis issues another designed-to-go-viral commercial, his work can often be as admired for its creativity as decried for its corrosive effects on political discourse.

His aim, always, is to get noticed, and to be different. "My goal is to give you elements that jar what you're expecting," Davis says. "You're numbed by 20 million ads before you, but I want you to stop on this one."

Davis, 58, made a name for himself with a 2008 ad juxtaposing Barack Obama and Paris Hilton ("He's the biggest celebrity in the world"), and another introducing Sarah Palin to the nation ("Mother . . . moose hunter . . . maverick"). In an age when YouTube makes the small large and the local national, Davis's clients (and Davis) have found an enormous audience.

Most of the people who wind up watching his ads, and e-mailing them to friends, have no stake in the political contests that he is paid to influence. They are watching for the sheer entertainment of it all. Davis's ads define his clients and their opponents so thoroughly that, by the time he is done, it can be difficult to see their faces without also thinking of his ads.

Davis is the lead media strategist for at least five statewide congressional campaigns and several conservative groups. And Delaware Senate hopeful Christine O'Donnell, fresh off her upset in last week's Republican primary, is in final negotiations to hire Davis to oversee her general election ad campaign.

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