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From the ad man who brought us 'demon sheep,' a few regrets

Nothing seemed off-limits to Fred Davis – until he was accused of race-baiting in a proposed anti-Obama campaign.

August 21, 2012|By Mark Z. Barabak, Los Angeles Times
  • Political ad man Fred Davis' Hollywood Hills office reflects his lifelong desire to be a showman -- colorful, irreverent, unconventional.
Political ad man Fred Davis' Hollywood Hills office reflects his… (Ricardo DeAratanha, Los…)

Fred Davis always loved putting on a show. As a boy, he recruited his siblings and neighbor kids to perform in the plays he wrote and staged in the family den and, sometimes, in nursing homes around Tulsa, Okla.

Davis wanted to be an actor, but his middling talent and the sudden death of his father when he was a teenager changed those plans. He inherited his dad's public relations firm, grew up and became a successful commercial ad man before moving into politics, largely by happenstance.

He sees things differently from most. His campaign spots feature a phantasm of oddities: "demon sheep," a rampaging rat, burly convicts pirouetting in pink tutus. They have made Davis quite well known in the political world, and quite well-off.

"He is probably the most creative and inventive consultant out there," said Mark Mellman, a Democratic strategist who has faced Davis, a Republican, in a handful of races.

He may be the most controversial too.

In February, Davis was pilloried for a Michigan TV ad featuring a Chinese American actress speaking broken English as she celebrated U.S. jobs going to China. Critics accused him of racism and xenophobia.

Three months later, the New York Times published details of a proposed advertising campaign against President Obama, centered on his past ties to the fulminating Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr.

Davis' pitch, intended for private consumption, was typically irreverent. It derided John McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee, as "a crusty old politician who often seemed confused." It demeaned the president as "a metrosexual, black Abraham Lincoln" and suggested — cynically, some would say — that Obama would respond by playing "the race card," ensuring huge attention.

The backlash was swift. The man Davis hoped would finance the ads, billionaire Joe Ricketts, denounced the proposal, as did Mitt Romney, this year's unofficial GOP nominee. Davis faced death threats, suffered sleepless nights and, by his account, lost nearly 10 pounds. It was, he says, one of the most difficult times of his life.

"I assure you there is not a xenophobic or racist bone in his body," said Q. Whitfield Ayres, a Republican pollster who has known Davis for nearly two decades. "Anyone who thinks that of Fred does not know him one little bit."

But, fairly or not, questions of character now attach themselves to Davis, enough that a risk-averse candidate might wish to weigh his talents against the baggage he carries into a campaign.

The paradox is how Davis, so gifted at shaping and promoting the image of others, managed to lose control of his own.


They call him "Hollywood Fred." Not because of his aerie in the hills above Los Angeles, with its wraparound deck and Catalina views, but his feathered hair — gray at age 60 — and the bland good looks of the character actor he never was. (Davis is still a performer at heart; for an audience of one he did the voices of Cajun-born campaign consultant James Carville, Michigan's adenoidal Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, a Texas banker, an Australian preacher, a small boy, Davis' barking high school drama teacher, a Southern governor, several senators and the sound of a jet engine.)

Even as a young executive in Tulsa, long-haired and goateed, Davis stood out, pushing back against the suits and other button-down enforcers of the bland, the commonplace and conventional. His approach has always been simple: "If every other ad is yellow, you do your ad red. If every ad is loud, you do yours soft."

As he spoke, Davis was sunk into a furry brown cowhide chair, one of four seats in an office arrangement that included a Holstein and zebra and cheetah prints. Perched overhead was a menagerie of taxidermic animals, including a two-headed calf. For Davis, it seems, conformity is practically a mortal sin.

His upbringing was happy and uneventful until a tragedy blindsided him. The eldest of four children, Davis became man of the house on a Christmas break from college when his father fell dead of a heart attack at age 49. Davis was 19.

He quit school and ran his father's public relations business, struggling before it dawned on him: "If you buy a page in the newspaper, you can put in there anything you want."

He switched from public relations to advertising, and his company boomed until the collapse of the oil and gas industry flattened Oklahoma's economy and chased Davis to California. After several unhappy months of consulting work, Davis returned to advertising and began rebuilding his business.

The next life-altering event was a happier one.

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