If there’s been one axiom governing Republican ad man Fred Davis’s career, it’s that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. In an era when losing a news cycle can mean losing an election, by Davis’s calculation, controversial is better than forgettable.
Perhaps that’s why he was the high-profile GOP strategist tapped to work on a provocative advertisement campaign that would have resurfaced the link between President Obama and his former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, known for his incendiary sermons on race relations in the United States. The New York Times unearthed the $10 million proposal for the ad campaign, entitled “The Defeat of Barack Hussein Obama” that would have been bankrolled by multimillionaire Joe Ricketts' super PAC and aired during the Democratic National Convention in September.
The plan, which had yet to be approved, promised to “do exactly what John McCain would not let us do,” referring to McCain’s reluctance to pursue the line of attack. Mitt Romney has publicly repudiated the ad.
Davis has never been one to shy away from controversy—in fact, he’s embraced shock-and-awe tactics in producing viral ads that, at the very least, gets people talking about his clients, bringing high-production value and a touch of the bizarre to his work.
"Almost every day I've got to convince someone to do something that's a crazy idea," Davis told the Washington Post in 2010. "If I picked what's on my tombstone, it would be: 'If you don't notice it, why bother?'”
His Rolodex reads like a who’s who of prominent Republican figures: to name a few, McCain, former California Senate candidate Carly Fiorina, former GOP presidential candidate Jon Huntsman, former president George W. Bush, former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, former vice president Dan Quayle, his son, Rep. Ben Quayle, Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley and failed Delaware Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell, among dozens of others.
Raised in deep-red Oklahoma and the nephew of Sen. Jim Inhofe, Davis started out in the public relations business, taking over his father’s Tulsa-based firm in 1972, when he was only 19. The business grew to include corporate advertising and was ultimately moved to Los Angeles in the mid-1980s, renamed Strategic Perception Inc.—the firm Davis continues to operate.
In 1994, politics came calling for the first time when Inhofe, then a congressman, asked his nephew to help rescue his floundering Senate campaign against Congressman Dave McCurdy. Davis cut an ad that showed convicts taking ballet lessons in pink tutus—a jab at Democrats’ crime policies.
It seems to have worked. Inhofe, who was trailing by 15 points three months before the election, trounced his opponent by 15 points.
There’s been no looking back since then. Some of his greatest hits can be found here.