Michigan Senate candidate Pete Hoekstra is engulfed in a national firestorm of criticism after running a Super Bowl ad last week that featured an Asian peasant girl thanking his opponent in broken English for letting her country steal our jobs. Considering who Hoekstra hired to produce the spot, he should hardly be surprised by the attention.
The ad’s creator, Hollywood-based GOP consultant Fred Davis, is responsible for many of the most viewed — and polarizing — political ads in recent years.
A radical adherent to Irish poet Brendan Behan’s old adage that “there’s no bad publicity, except an obituary,” everything Davis produces is designed to go viral no matter what it takes to get there, even if it means dressing up an actor as a demonic farm animal.
I called up Davis this week and asked him to go over some of his most famous spots, including the Hoekstra ad, and address their various cheers and jeers. Here are five of his most famous works with commentary.
They Took Our Jobs!
This is the Hoekstra ad dominating the news this week. It’s drawn condemnations so far from local ministers, community groups, and even led a top Asian American politician to angrily drop her support for Hoesktra.
There’s no denying the ad’s blunt China-baiting is a shock — if one that both sides have employed. GOP strategist Mike Murphy derided it on Twitter as “really, really dumb” and other Republican consultants have lit into it as well. But Hoekstra is doubling down on it, saying it has “no racial tint,” and seems all too happy to soak up some abuse in order to draw attention to the ad’s attack on incumbent Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI).
Davis, for his part, thinks the attention over the ad will ultimately work out to Hoekstra’s favor.
“It will be a weeklong flareup on the technique involved and then people will remember the message: she’s a big spender and he’s not,” he said.
This surreal Carly Fiorina web video from her Senate primary run in 2010 is probably the definitive Davis ad. It pulled out absolutely every stop in order to draw Internet attention to an otherwise sleepy election flight against her opponent Tom Campbell, outright begging to be mocked online. And once again, it’s tough to judge the results. While Campbell’s spokesman said at the time it showed Fiorina was in “complete meltdown mode,” a position echoed by many independent observers, she went on to win the primary en route to a general election loss. Davis credits the video’s attention with helping to define Campbell early into his primary run.
“I don’t believe anyone will say it didn’t work, it worked extremely well,” Davis said. “I never expected millions of people to see it.”
And just to make clear that the ad’s insane imagery wasn’t an accident, Davis’ next Fiorina video was even weirder.
Not A Witch
Ah, the 2010 midterms, when a few winks to the Tea Party movement was all it took for a former anti-masturbation activist turned full-time politician to somehow defeat a hugely popular Congressman in Delaware’s GOP Senate primary. After Christine O’Donnell became a household name with her upset win, Davis swooped in to give her campaign a more professional sheen. The result: an endlessly parodied ad referencing O’Donnell’s old claim that she once dated a pagan cultist.
O’Donnell’s trashed the ad in her memoirs, calling it “idiotic,” but Davis says that something had to be done to stop the steady drip of wacky videos emerging from the candidate’s career as a regular on comedian Bill Maher’s show.
“She could not run a race without drawing a line in the sand,” he told me. “The previous Saturday she had been featured for her anti-masturbation campaign as the opening act on SNL. You don’t ignore that stuff, that’s the reality of life.”
Davis admitted the race was a longshot from the start. I asked him why he decided to hop in at the last minute, knowing O’Donnell’s history.
“It had a novelty element to it,” he recalled. “There’s something about me that appreciates an underdog and I thought she was obviously a major league underdog — as a good old American, I was intrigued.”
This spot for John McCain is the most undeniably effective Davis ad, though no less controversial than the rest. It seems hard to believe now, but there was a brief moment in August 2008 where President Obama actually looked like he was in trouble in the general election. The threat: an much-discussed ad campaign portraying the freshman Senator as an empty suit who rode a fluke wave of success to become “the biggest celebrity in the world.”
“Those ads helped wrestle a win basically for August and the first half of September in a race that no one anticipated us being ahead,” he said. “When it ran, Obama was off in Germany speaking in front of 200,000 people and for all practical purposes we expected him to come back to ticket tape parades on Wall Street. That didn’t happen because we raised the celebrity issue.”
Critics condemned the Davis ad as a racist dogwhistle for juxtaposing Obama with images of Paris Hilton and Britney Spears, “two sexually available white women” as Newsday’s John Riley put it. Davis told TPM he was shocked to hear the issue raised at the time, because McCain had gone so far away to shoot down any ideas that might be viewed as a reference to Obama’s race. He recalled one instance in which the campaign vetoed an ad with a “Righteous Brothers style” drum-beat track because they felt it might be interpreted as “jungle drums”
“John McCain was personally so opposed to anything that had the slightest hint of racial undertones that those were just instant no-nos,” he said.
Of course, we’ll never quite know if it would have worked: McCain’s “celebrity” meme died the instant he chose an obscure half-term governor from Alaska as his running mate and the financial crisis delivered the final blow.
Barack. Obama. Is. The. Worst. President. Ever.
Ben Quayle, son of ex-Veep Dan, really had no business breaking out of a crowded GOP House primary in Arizona, even with a famous last name. In one of the greatest Internet-era scandals yet, Quayle was revealed during his run to have had a side career at a friend’s raunchy adult-themed site, where he allegedly took on the pen name “Brock Landers” and blogged about how his “moral compass is so broken I can barely find the parking lot.” Enter Davis.
“The purpose of the ad was to change the subject,” Davis said. “We were sitting in Ben’s breakfast nook one day trading ideas what to do to and I just said to say whats on his mind. So he said ‘Well, Obama’s the worst president in history.’ My brain just went ding ding ding!”
Thanks to the ad, the national media’s attention was suddenly focused on whether Quayle was too mean to Barack Obama. Needless to say, that debate went over a whole lot better in the GOP primary — he ended up winning. Davis still calls it the “great example” of his attention-getting strategy in action.
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.