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Ad Absurdum

A GOP pitchman goes Dada.

The scene is rugged Western desert; the music is corny countrylite. A lone motorcyclist rides across the frame. Text flashes on screen: “IN 6 DAYS.” Followed by: “Did not become famous with his band ‘Wizard.’” What does any of this have to do with Jon Huntsman’s presidential campaign? Well, that’s kind of unclear.

In the days leading up to the announcement of his candidacy in mid-June, Huntsman released three Web videos, featuring the same lone rider, the same cheesy music, and a random fact about the former Utah governor. (“Has seven children, one from India, one from China.” “The candidate for president who rides motocross to relax.”) They inspired an avalanche of parodies by everyone from the Utah State Democratic Party to Rick Santorum’s campaign.

The ads are the work of Fred Davis, a Hollywood media consultant, and they’re typical of his rather idiosyncratic m.o. When Carly Fiorina was trailing Tom Campbell in the 2010 California GOP Senate primary, Davis produced a spot showing sheep grazing in a meadow. Enter a guy in a sheep costume with glowing red eyes. A voice (belonging to Robert Davi, whose acting credits include Die Hard and Showgirls) intones that Campbell is a FCINO—a “fiscal conservative in name only.” The so-called “Demon Sheep” ad quickly went viral. And, when Delaware Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell acquired a reputation for being unfit for national office, Davis concocted a video in which she declared to the camera, “I’m not a witch.”

In Huntsman’s case, the problem is his obscurity—a poll conducted in Iowa in late May turned up only one supporter. Few would dispute that, if it’s attention you want, Davis is your man. But is it the right kind of attention? Charlie Black, a strategist who worked with Davis on the 2008 McCain campaign, calls him a “genius.” Others say his ads are weird and make his clients look bad. So are Fred Davis’s ads good for his candidates—or just good for Fred Davis?

I MET DAVIS in March at the Pollies—the annual awards for political advertising, held in Washington’s Fairmont hotel. Tables in the lobby were covered with useful literature like “Direct-Mail for Dummies”; inside, dozens of mostly white, male consultants were dining on inedible slabs of rare steak. I sat next to an amiable consultant who offered a running commentary as people lined up to collect an endless number of awards. “Everyone in this room has a swift-boat idea floating around in their head,” he told me. Clips of the year’s best-known ads played on screens around the banquet hall, many by Davis. There was the O’Donnell ad, “Demon Sheep,” and a Monty Python-esque spot featuring Barbara Boxer’s head as a giant talking blimp floating over San Francisco.

After dinner, I went in search of Davis but kept getting waylaid by doughy, sweaty admen eager to regale me with campaign war stories. I finally found Davis avoiding the fray at the bar one floor up. At 59, he is slim and tan with flowing white hair. He projects California cool, but he is actually from Oklahoma, where he took over his father’s p.r. firm when he was 19. As the business grew, he moved it to Los Angeles but never did any political advertising until 1994, when he got a call from his uncle, Oklahoma Representative James Inhofe, who was flailing in his bid for the U.S. Senate. Davis devised a TV spot featuring felons dressed in pink tutus—a critique of a Democratic crime bill that funded art classes for prisoners. Inhofe triumphed, and Davis’s new career had begun.

The standard strategy in political advertising is to spend millions to run boring ads so many times that they are burned into the voter’s memory. Davis takes the opposite approach, aiming to make ads that only need to be seen once. In 2002, for instance, he met with little-known State Senator Sonny Perdue, who was running for governor of Georgia against Democratic incumbent Roy Barnes. In the middle of the night, Davis hit on a theme: Georgians were tired of being told what to do. He envisioned Barnes as a giant rat with a “jaunty little crown on his head and a chain around his neck,” thumping through Atlanta. When he pitched it the next day, Perdue’s staff looked at him like he was nuts. But Perdue said, “I don’t hear any better ideas. Hollywood, go build us a rat!” Davis says he spent $20,000 on a custom-built rat costume with a state-of-the-art air-conditioning system. So many people tried to view the ads that the campaign’s website crashed, one staffer recalls. Perdue won, having spent $4.8 million compared with Barnes’s $20 million. “No one had ever heard his name before the rat,” says Davis proudly.

This kind of strategy is common in corporate advertising to sell products. When used to sell a public figure, it’s riskier. At the Fairmont, I asked Davis about the “I’m not a witch” ad, which some argue tipped O’Donnell’s candidacy from long-shot to joke. “Christine O’Donnell did not have to become the laughingstock of the country,” one Republican consultant told me. “He didn’t care though, because he could get attention.” Davis, however, insists the ad lifted her 6 points (from as many as 17 points down) and that, if she’d let him run what was supposed to be a five-part series, she might’ve bounced back. “When [candidates] are losing, they are more willing to take risks,” says John Brabender, a consultant for Santorum’s presidential campaign. “I don’t think what they tried with O’Donnell worked, but I understand why they tried it.”

The other ad that divided the political class was “Demon Sheep.” The commercial never really connected with voters, according to internal polling—but it didn’t have to. “It set the tone for the race amongst a category of insiders,” winning the attention of big donors, says Fiorina’s campaign manager, Marty Wilson, adding that it cost only a few thousand dollars but received 700,000 page views. (He considers 10,000 good.) “People were piling on [Davis] for that ad,” says Charlie Black, “but it was one hundred million dollars’ worth of national publicity.” I put this argument to the critical GOP consultant, who maintains the spot was nothing special. “I can make a viral ad,” he says. “Get me some Barbie dolls, give me some babies, put them in the back of a truck, and get some guy with a pitchfork and unload them.” 

As for Huntsman, he may be hoping that Davis can do for him what he did for Rick Snyder, the former Gateway exec who made his political debut last year by running for governor of Michigan. One evening, Davis met Snyder and his wife for dinner. His first impression was that Snyder looked gubernatorial. Then Snyder opened his mouth. “Hi Fred, I’m Rick,” he said in a squeaky voice. “It was the ultimate nerd voice,” Davis recalls. He scribbled “nerd” in his notebook but was reluctant to use the word in front of Snyder’s wife. Finally, he eyeballed Snyder and gave it to him straight: “You are what Michigan needs. Michigan needs a nerd.” Snyder beamed. His wife said, “Oh honey, that’s you!” That’s how Snyder came to be sold to Michigan as “one tough nerd.” He won the election in a landslide.

Eliza Gray is a reporter-researcher at The New Republic. This article originally ran in the August 4, 2011, issue of the magazine.