Republican media consultant Fred Davis III has a vision for the future of American politics, one in which building-size rats roam the landscape, babies in strollers wear enormous brown toupees, and demon sheep with red robotic eyes feed on rolling green hills. He envisions a democratic process driven by viral oddities and visual tricks, campaign ads so weird that no one can look away.
What's more, for Davis and the candidates who employ him, that future is already here. "My whole deal in life is, if nobody sees it and nobody talks about it, you have wasted your money," says Davis, who is best known for creating the famous Barack Obama "Celebrity" ad as a media consultant to presidential candidate John McCain.
On Wednesday, Feb. 3, the Hollywood-based political auteur released his latest creation: a three-minute YouTube spot attacking Republican Senate candidate Thomas Campbell on behalf of his rival, Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard CEO now running in the GOP Senate primary. The ad was so weird employing montages of pigs and sheep, a robotic wolfman dressed in wool, graphic illustration evoking Monty Python that it spread online like swine flu on a pig farm.
"Carly Fiorina Is an Internet Genius," declared New York magazine. "The Most Bizarre Ad in Recent Memory," blared the Huffington Post. "Demon Sheep Goes Viral," announced the Washington Post on a front-page Web headline. The tag #demonsheep quickly spiked near the top of Twitter's trending topics, and Rachel Maddow played the spot on her MSNBC show, calling it "so bad, no one wanted to believe it was real." Not wanting to be left out of the controversy, the third Republican candidate in the race to unseat Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer, Chuck DeVore, responded by launching a website Demonsheep.org that asked people to "pledge your efforts to stop these Jawa-like, Terminator-esque Demon Sheep from taking over California."
Davis, meanwhile, watched the explosion with a sort of mischievous delight. "In California, it costs almost $5 million to fund one 30-second TV spot statewide," he explained in an interview on Thursday, Feb. 4. "We have to go out of the way to get attention. I would say we probably got more attention on this little sheep film that they would get for $10 million of advertising."
And the object of all of that attention was Fiorina's fiercely negative message: that Campbell, the front runner in the polls for the GOP nomination, was not a true fiscal conservative. Rather, he was a wolf in sheep's clothing, a "fiscal conservative in name only." The Campbell campaign responded by deploying its new-media consultant, Mindy Finn, on Twitter to try to direct the viral buzz. "If the GOP has any hope of taking back the senate it won't be by accusing each other of being #demonsheep," she wrote in one post, having already rated the spot a "marketing fail."
"People have been mocking the campaign for releasing this type of ad," says James Fisfis, a Campbell spokesman, noting the criticism that has spread on blogs. "We sent it out to our supporters to raise money on it." The fundraising e-mail claimed that "Carly's campaign is hitting the panic button."
Davis, a rare blow-dried Republican in liberal Los Angeles, has played this card before. He first made his mark on the national scene by producing a 10-minute movie for 2002 Georgia gubernatorial candidate Sonny Purdue that depicted the sitting governor, Roy Barnes, as "King Roy," a giant rat with a gold crown, stomping like Godzilla through Atlanta. That was before the advent of YouTube and viral videos, so he screened the film for journalists at a movie theater; the next day, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution ran an image from the spot on its front page. Purdue went on to win the election.
In Illinois last year, Davis produced a six-minute video for Republican Senate candidate Andy McKenna that put Governor Rod Blagojevich's hair on the state capital and most of its inhabitants, making it a symbol of corruption in the state. The ad was called "Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow," and though it generated significant media coverage, the McKenna campaign eventually pulled it from circulation. "While the ad was running, we gained countless points in the poll," he said. "But they got cold feet on the hair."
Not all of Davis' clients a roster that includes Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley and Tim James, who is running for Governor in Alabama request the viral boost he offers. But Davis says Fiorina's corporate-world background in marketing predisposed her to this kind of risk taking. "She loved it," he says of Fiorina's reaction when he screened the demon-sheep spot. "Do you go into it knowing it is going to get negative blowback? Absolutely you do. But at the end of the day, my only goal, and the campaign's only goal, is to get people to wake up to the fact that what Tom Campbell's telling you may not be the real Tom Campbell."
A day after its posting, YouTube recorded more than 120,000 views of the spot. By contrast, Davis points out, the campaign had released a straight two-minute bio video about Fiorina on Feb. 1. Three days later, it had garnered 611 views on YouTube. "What would the normal chattering class say you should do? Run a serious ad," Davis continues. "No you don't. Nobody is interested in that."
This is Davis' campaign mantra for a new era of political communication, one in which free viral attention is just as valuable as costly television time. "I just say there are two choices," Davis says of his advice to his clients. "You can pay a whole lot of money to get your message in front of eyeballs, or you can go out on a limb a little bit." For Davis, that's a no-brainer.