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

By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 22, 2010; C01

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.

In Michigan, Davis cast Rick Snyder, a former chief executive of Gateway computers, as "One Tough Nerd," propelling him to a surprising lead in the governor's race. In Arizona, he re-imagined Sen. John McCain as an anti-immigration crusader walking along the Mexican border and telling a sheriff to "complete the danged fence."

And here in California, Davis produced two videos for Fiorina's campaign that instantly went viral. One, "Demon Sheep," portrayed Fiorina's moderate Republican primary opponent, Tom Campbell, as a red-eyed demon wolf in sheep's clothing. On hands and knees, an actor playing Campbell stalks a flock of innocent sheep unaware of his lust for higher taxes. The other, "Hot Air: The Movie," depicts Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer's head swelling to the size of a blimp as she talks and talks. The head floats away on hot air, crashes through the Capitol dome and floats across the country, Boxer talking all the way.

"Almost every day I've got to convince someone to do something that's a crazy idea," Davis says. "If I picked what's on my tombstone, it would be: 'If you don't notice it, why bother?' "

Into 'the Woods'

Once the Fiorina shoot wraps, Davis gives directions to his office. The headquarters of Strategic Perception is an unmarked house on Mulholland Highway, high in the Hollywood Hills.

"If you get lost, it's the yellow house underneath the 'wood' in the Hollywood sign," he tells a reporter. "I hate yellow. I would paint it black, my favorite color, but I can't." (The house, a stop on Hollywood bus tours, is where Tweety Bird cartoon creator Bob Clampett lived and died.)

Davis works on as many as a dozen political campaigns every cycle, but he makes most of his profits through lucrative contracts with corporate clients, including Harrah's Entertainment, the casino outfit, and Lorillard, the tobacco conglomerate.

He won't say how much he pulls in a year, but it's enough to support a home life reminiscent of a 1950s Hollywood studio boss. Davis named his sprawling place "The Woods." It takes a minute for a new visitor to get adjusted to the decor. Nine stuffed animal heads -- argali sheep, wild boar, antelope, brown bear -- grace one wall in the foyer. In the powder room, the stuffed behind of a deer, tail up, is mounted above the toilet. (Davis doesn't hunt.) On a ledge rests a two-headed stuffed calf with four hind legs, two front legs and two legs growing out of its back. He got that one from a sideshow carnival museum in Texas.

Davis meets with clients and potential clients on plush armchairs covered in zebra skin, cow skin and snow leopard print. Sliding glass doors open to a sun balcony and sweeping views stretching west, past downtown Los Angeles to Santa Monica, with the mountains of Catalina Island visible on the horizon.

"When you live here and work here in this hyper-creative community, it's essential," says Davis, in faded bluejeans and a linen shirt. "You could build a case that, for me, being in Washington, D.C., is essential. But I think I'd go insane. Here, this is the land of fresh ideas."

Portraits of his political clients line a long wall. There's McCain and former president George W. Bush, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and former vice president Dan Quayle, Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley and Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander and former North Carolina senator Elizabeth Dole. One spot on the wall is empty -- by design. That way his potential clients can imagine their portraits someday filling the space.

Upstairs is the ad man's lair -- a loft suite where Davis works and sometimes sleeps when he is too busy during the peak of political season to drive 90 miles to his home in Santa Barbara. "I built it as a cocoon," Davis says. A five-foot stuffed peacock greets guests on the landing that leads to his office. Davis has an antique mahogany desk with a bobble-head doll of himself. His nameplate reads: "Hollywood Fred Davis, President's Media Guy."

Two feet away is a cowhide chaise longue. This is where, hour after hour, Davis writes -- stretched out, his neck resting on a black leather pillow and his feet dangling off the end. He says he writes all of his scripts, each on his Apple laptop. "The biggest battle in writing these stupid things is keeping it short, telling a story in an emotional, impactful way in 60 words," Davis says.

This is also where Davis, ever the multi-tasker, plows through his e-mails, anywhere from 1,200 to 1,500 a day, that chime in by the minute. He proudly keeps his inbox nearly empty.

In the next room is a small gym. On the wall facing the weight-lifting machine hangs a framed 1980s-era portrait of Davis with a golden halo. Davis, 6-foot and slender, admits: "I don't really work out. Why I built this, I don't know."

Off to the side is his master bedroom suite, with a half-wall that opens onto the meeting space below. When he wakes up, Davis presses a button that props up his head on his king-size bed and lifts the curtains to reveal the morning fog over the valley. "Before I do anything, I pull my laptop up and check for any disasters," Davis says. "Most nights, there is a disaster."

Davis allowed The Washington Post to shadow him for three days this month, the first time in his four decades in advertising that he has given a journalist unrestricted access to his company and daily life. Davis held strategy calls on speakerphone, wrote scripts, coached politicians on upcoming shoots, directed voice-overs, edited graphic elements and selected musical scores. The Post agreed not to report on the scripts of ads that haven't aired or on proprietary information about the campaigns that he works on.

His restrictions applied beyond the professional realm. As much as he presents an amped-up persona to the world, he refuses to disclose anything about his private life except to say that he is in a long-term relationship with a woman whom he declines to identify.

The politicians he works for make up a second family and he describes them as more than clients, but intimates. This tight collaboration is key to his process, he says.

"Politicians and creative, that isn't always a great mesh," Davis says. "Lamar Alexander loves creativity. Rick Snyder does. Carly -- she's the epitome of loving creativity."

Davis says he has a special relationship with Fiorina. "Carly is a marketer, so she is closer to me than perhaps any of my other clients. Carly gets it all. She gets the 'Demon Sheep' and all that. In the Carly world, it's great."

Through the campaign, the two have become friends. They recently got together socially for dinner and citrusy martinis.

"He doesn't try to make you something you're not," Fiorina said in an interview. "He was very interested in getting to know me and getting to know why I was running and getting to know what I thought the important issues were. He didn't try to edit and change."

Arresting messages

For Davis, each ad is an original production, and each production requires perfection. He uses symbolic images and metaphors to convey simple messages that arrest the viewer.

"He's trying to break through the clutter by using a lot of the strategies that you use in marketing and branding in a political setting so that the language, the visuals, the imagery are not ideological or issue-oriented or weighted down with political language, but are done in a way that people would remember," says Ralph Reed, a conservative activist and longtime Davis friend.

One morning Davis is on his laptop putting the finishing touches on "Mourning in America," a 60-second spot that will air nationally beginning Wednesday. Davis designed it as a reverse take on "Morning in America," the optimistic 1984 ad that evoked American renewal and was a centerpiece of President Ronald Reagan's reelection campaign.

In Davis's version -- paid for by Citizens for the Republic, the modern-day offshoot of Reagan's political action committee -- the narrator has a similarly deep voice and there are eerily similar montages of flags, weddings, back yards and downtown streets. But instead of talking about homeownership and new jobs, low interest rates and decreasing inflation, Davis's narrator warns of foreclosures and unemployment to paint an America in decline under Obama.

Davis is at his glass conference table trying to dial into a conference call. Voice-over veteran Ben Holland is on the other end in a sound studio reading the script in his deep baritone. But Davis can't get the speakerphone to work. "I have every technological marvel known to man here and I can't operate a single thing," Davis says.

"Chrissy!" he hollers, summoning his personal assistant, Christine Burroughs, from her office in the basement.

Burroughs came to work for Davis after eight years as executive assistant to convicted mobster Michael Franzese. According to her biography on the firm's Web site, "Michael, after doing his ten years, had several businesses, including the production of a pay-per-view concert, written & directed by . . . Fred Davis."

"He's a very interesting, colorful character," Davis says.

Burroughs gets the phone working.

"There's mourning in America," Holland says in his first read-through. "Under the leadership of President Obama, our country is fading and weaker and worse off. His policies were a grand experiment -- policies that failed.

"This November, let's choose a smaller, more caring government. One" -- here Davis calls for a pregnant pause to grab the viewer's attention -- "that remembers us."

"That's perfect!" Davis tells Holland.

Then Davis jumps back on his laptop. He is constantly checking his e-mail. "Let me just check for disasters real quick," he says.

A few of Davis's political ads are so strange that some dismiss them as just plain weird. This was the case when Fiorina debuted the eight-minute Boxer blimp video at the California Republican Convention in March. Boxer's campaign manager, Rose Kapolczynski, issued a statement calling it "another bizarre video."

But Davis says it worked perfectly. The ad was designed to rally Republican activists around Fiorina, then locked in a three-way primary battle with Campbell and Chuck DeVore. Fiorina's strategy with this video was to ignore them and take on Boxer directly.

"I kept saying, all we're running against is Barbara Boxer's ego," Davis says. "I thought, hmm . . . what happens when you have a big ego? Your head swells. What happens when your head swells? You float.

"It was so over-the-top different and bold and big and brassy," Davis adds. "No one ever thought Barbara Boxer could be beaten. And seeing this made you think this would be a campaign like you've never seen before -- and could put her out to pasture."

At the 35-second mark, Davis snuck in footage of his favorite client -- his uncle, Inhofe. He is ranking member of the Environment and Public Works Committee, which Boxer chairs, and Davis dug up C-SPAN footage of a committee hearing so Inhofe could have a cameo.

A few days after the video made the rounds online, Inhofe says Boxer came up to him on the Senate floor and said, "Your nephew is doing his job out in California."

"Well, that's Freddy," Inhofe says he told her. "No one does what he does."

David Krone, a friend of Davis's and a senior Democratic leadership aide in the Senate, says what makes Davis so unlike other political media strategists is his willingness to "put himself out there."

"He's not scared about others making fun of him because he's the guy that gets the last laugh," Krone says. "He knows that, at the end of the day, it's about getting the message across."

Nick Ayers, executive director of the Republican Governors Association, who has worked with Davis on previous campaigns and hired Davis to produce RGA ads this year in Ohio, Michigan and Hawaii, resorts to an extended football metaphor to capture his friend's technique.

"You can run the safe offense that keeps the ball on the ground," Ayers says. "There are few turnovers and interceptions when you're running the ball. When you hire Fred, you know you're putting a guy in place who likes to throw deep, which means you can score a lot of points. It also means that there is potential for serious risks and turnovers."

This was the case for a few of Davis's candidates this year. In Alabama, he made a controversial ad for gubernatorial candidate Tim James, in which the candidate said he would save the state money by offering drivers license exams in "only English." In Illinois, he created a spot for gubernatorial candidate Andy McKenna that drew attention to the corruption charges against former governor Rod Blagojevich. In the ad, the Illinois capitol dome is topped with Blago's thick head of hair.

And in Georgia, gubernatorial candidate Karen Handel made headlines with a Davis ad that depicted her as an ox wearing lipstick. The narrator called her "tougher than an ox," a not so subtle slight of one of her opponents, John Oxendine.

Those candidates wound up losing. Davis insisted his ads weren't to blame. So, it must have been something else. James offended voters when he suggested cutting the salary of beloved University of Alabama football coach Nick Saban; McKenna, after making a splash with "Hair," became overly cautious; and Handel didn't raise enough money to survive a brutal runoff.

When Davis joins a campaign, he spends days following the candidate and getting to know him before he sits down to write a script.

"Fred's bedside manner is almost like a very friendly therapist," Reed says. "He's trying to find out who they are so that he can sell them. I think that it's very disarming. He's so different than your normal political operative that I think they kind of like having him around."

The best ads, Davis says, are based on something the candidates say. When Davis and his crew flew to Nogales, Ariz., to film McCain's immigration ad, there was no script ready. Davis asked McCain what he wanted to say about immigration.

"John says, 'I think this situation has gotten way, way worse. They're murdering people today. We have home invasions all the way up in Phoenix. I think we just need to build the danged fence,' " Davis says.

"I went, 'Ding! Ding! Ding!' " Davis says.

"It's always better when they say it and I don't have to make it up. I didn't say, 'Barack Obama is the worst president in history,' " Davis says, referencing a provocative ad that he made for Ben Quayle's Arizona winning primary campaign. "Ben Quayle said that. We were just talking for five minutes, and he said it and I made a mental note."

Marketing roots

Strategic Perception is smaller than most political media firms. Davis has seven full-time employees in four offices nationwide, and he prides himself on personally managing every account.

Davis is the rare admaker who came to politics from the corporate world. Most rise up through the world of campaigns, but Davis learned the trade through consumer marketing.

Davis learned the business young. In Tulsa, where he grew up, his father was head of a three-man public relations firm. In 1972, when Davis was 19, his dad suddenly died. Davis dropped out of Trinity University in San Antonio to return home and take over the business. A few years later, Davis & Matos Inc. had about 70 employees, with offices in the United States and Venezuela and lucrative accounts with oil companies. Davis, then in his mid-20s, was one of the most prominent businessmen in Tulsa.

But when the oil industry collapsed in the early 1980s, Davis's firm spiraled into debt. "It was a horrific mess," Davis recalls. He says that he suffered "a bruised ego." Soon, he signed up a big client in Beverly Hills, moved the company headquarters to California and gave it a new name: Strategic Perception.

Davis delved into politics in 1994. His uncle, then-congressman Inhofe, was trailing in his Senate race. Inhofe had become a father figure for Davis in the absence of his father.

Davis says he jumped at the chance to help rescue his uncle's campaign. He produced a 30-second ad depicting grizzled convicts taking ballet lessons in pink tutus, a humorous assault on a Democratic crime policy that included arts education for prisoners. "His genius just started coming out," says Inhofe, who rose in the polls and won by 15 percentage points.

From there, Davis's political practice grew. In 1999, Dan Quayle signed him to handle all media work for his presidential bid, and the two became fast friends after bonding one night over tequila shots in the kitchen of Quayle's Arizona house. Davis recently enlisted Quayle's wife, Marilyn, to record the voice-over for Handel's lipstick-ox ad.

"I try to do music you don't expect, titles you don't expect, concepts you don't expect, words you don't expect -- and a voice like Marilyn's is certainly one you don't expect," Davis says. "And it led to guessing games in Georgia about who it was, which made more and more people watch it."

Davis cemented his reputation for the unconventional in 2002, when he produced an ad for Sonny Perdue, a little-known Georgia Republican running to unseat Gov. Roy Barnes (D). The spot showed a giant rat with a crown and gold "King Roy" necklace stomping across the Georgia countryside, looming over Atlanta's highways and, a la Godzilla, scaling the gold-domed Capitol.

"Sonny was the biggest upset in the country in 2002, and the rat provided the spark that got us there," says Ayers, a veteran of Perdue's campaigns.

Davis says the biggest challenge of his career came in 2008. After securing the GOP presidential nomination, McCain hired Davis as chief creative consultant. In addition to producing ads such as "Celeb," the flashbulb-popping ad comparing Obama with Hilton and Britney Spears, Davis produced 24 films and 100 high-definition video backgrounds for the Republican National Convention in Minnesota. He also designed the convention's set -- nothing glitzy, Davis says, just an empty black floor and "the world's largest TV screen."

"I wrote every word in that damn convention," says Davis, who toiled for two weeks in a storage closet in the bowels of St. Paul's Xcel Energy Center. A sign on the door read: "Fred's Lightning Lounge." He hung a deer head on the wall, reminiscent of home, and a huge photo of Obama smoking a cigarette.

On the campaign, Davis wanted to use footage of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright in attack ads against Obama, but McCain overruled him. "He would not allow anything that would be vaguely perceived as racist," Davis says. "That's because he's a decent guy -- and because he was so decent, we couldn't use all the tools, and that's a reason we didn't win."

In St. Paul, it fell to Davis to figure out how to introduce Palin to the country. With the convention about to begin, he arrived in her hotel suite to shoot footage of McCain's newly minted running mate. As Davis recounted to the authors of "Game Change," Palin was in her robe as a couple of stylists applied a hot iron to her hair. Davis saw the steam coming off the top of her head and thought, "Oh my God, her hair's on fire!"

Davis says Palin then asked his advice: "Fred, what's the iconic Sarah Palin brand? Hair up? Or hair down?"

"Definitely hair up."

A blur of work

These days, Davis's life is one continuous blur of shoots, strategy meetings and phone calls. He juggles the demands of each campaign -- some have standing conference calls every day -- which can be a scheduling nightmare.

Davis has travel down to a science. He keeps three packed suitcases and toiletry bags in his closet, each a different size depending on the length of the trip. A trained pilot, Davis says that he prefers to take charter jets -- "Chrissy knows every jet charter company in America" -- but most campaigns make him fly commercial.

He arrives at Company 3, a Santa Monica color-correction studio. "It's the grooviest place with the grooviest people," Davis says in the elevator. The receptionist takes him to a dark room and offers him a cappuccino or a martini (he takes a decaf cappuccino). There, he and Dixon, the fashion photographer, touch up the coloring on the footage that they shot of Fiorina. They darken the fog backdrop and remove the shadows on her face.

Davis says he likes to control every element of every ad -- including the music. He orders custom scores for most of his campaigns and uses variations of the score in each ad. For Inhofe, Davis had roughly 40 versions of "America the Beautiful" composed. "We have country, big band, full orchestra, serious and sad, uplifting and happy, even a woman humming it," he says.

"The candidates have no clue what goes into this -- until they see the bill and gasp," Davis adds. "But doing things right, in my business, is not cheapo."

He says a typical one-day shoot costs around $40,000, which comes on top of Davis's consulting fee. "People say, 'Well, Fred costs too much, Fred puts too much effort in, Fred's stuff looks pretty cool but politics doesn't need it,' " Davis says. "I look at it as the political ad comes after a Bank of America ad and right before a Ford ad and if it doesn't look as good, people will realize something's wrong."

Davis's financial arrangements with each campaign differ, but he says he usually is paid a retainer in the low-to-mid-six figures and earns a cut of the media buy, as much as 10 percent. He also negotiates win bonuses, which fluctuate based on a calculation of the candidate's standing at the time he joins the campaign.

Davis's lavish lifestyle is in stark contrast to the images that his candidates try to project. "Elizabeth Dole always introduced me as Fred Davis from Oklahoma -- never Fred Davis from Hollywood," Davis says, as he zips down Route 101 in his black Porsche, off to his next appointment.

He is learning to fly helicopters and, once he gets his license, plans to buy one. He also has a key to the Grand Havana Room, an exclusive members-only cigar club off Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills.

One night, he took a reporter to the cedar-hued lounge for cocktails. During the 2004 presidential campaign, Davis and strategist Mark McKinnon met here regularly to plot Bush's ad campaign.

The club has 300 members, among them many of Hollywood's leading men. Davis steps into the humidor room, where he and other members store their cigars in personal wooden lockers. Never mind that he's not much of a smoker and says that he hasn't opened his box in months. Davis is here to gaze at the gold-plated name cards: Arnold Schwarzenegger . . . Sylvester Stallone . . . Hulk Hogan . . . Mel Gibson . . . David Geffen . . .

Fred N. Davis III.

He returns to a retro velvet couch to meet his friend, the actor Robert Davi, one of Hollywood's lonely dyed-in-the-wool conservatives. Davi, who played the villain in the James Bond film "License to Kill," has a distinctive baritone. And in an exclusive deal, he provides the voice-overs for many of Davis's ads. He narrated every video at the 2008 Republican convention.

"We never told who Robert Davi was," Davis says. "If you write that in your story, you'll be the first. He's the voice of Rick Snyder, McCain -- all the McCain stuff -- Carly. He was the voice of 'Demon Sheep.' "

Davi, smoking a Cuban torpedo, turns to his friend and dubs him "the Wizard of Oz of political campaigns."

"Here you have the Yellow Brick Road," Davi says. "You're creating an illusion. You're creating a world in Dorothy's head. The iconic use of the straw man and the lion. In the political arena, you're creating an illusion."

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