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The Vulgarization of Politics

November 8, 2008 · 1 Comment

On Friday, November 7th, just four days after the historic Presidential election, I had the opportunity to hear one of the key advertising architects for the McCain campaign.  Fred Davis spoke to an exclusive and intimate gathering of sixty marketing executives in San Francisco as part of The CMO Club.  Davis owns and runs Strategic Perspectives and was responsible for the advertising strategies of John McCain as well as the Senate campaigns of Elizabeth Dole, John Sununu, and a long list of other Republican losers.  In the long list of campaigns that he worked on, all were Republican and most lost.  I had to look across the table at the end of the list during his introduction and my table mate and I concurrently stage whispered: “those didn’t work out so well, did they?”

Fred Davis of Strategic Perspectives

Fred Davis of Strategic Perspectives

I was in equal parts mesmerized and horrified.  I found myself admiring his cunning and his thought processes, but then would take a step back and realize that the net effect of his work is truly corrosive to society and to the reasoned discourse necessary for a well functioning democracy.

You have to admit that Davis’ efforts have often been effective.  But they’ve been effective by appealing to the worst among and within us.  The Harold Ford Jr. Playboy Bunny ad?  That was his.  The Elizabeth Dole “Godless” ad?  His too.  So was the “Celebrity” ad against Obama this season.  When you review his work, as I did in the recent session, you see a not so subtle appeal to racism, class warfare, homophobia and misogyny.  Convicts dancing in tutus and a white playboy bunny talking about a black candidate.  Many of the most memorable extremes in negative ads have come from Davis’ work.  It is this kind of slimy campaigning that caused McCain’s longtime friend Chuck Hagel to not endorse McCain in the Presidential election.

Davis claimed to be mostly not interested in politics, and that might be true. But he only works for Republicans, and seems to have drunk more than his share of the conservative kool-aid.

Fred Davis is at once smart and charming but also reprehensible and largely responsible for so much of the partisan rancor and the disgust with which most citizens now view the political process. The win-at-all-costs approach makes advertising hitmen like Davis the practitioners of a dark art that has become indispensable to campaigns on all sides of the political spectrum. It was an interesting experience to say the least. Fred played a number of his TV ads from recent campaigns as well as earlier campaigns on figures like James Inhofe (his uncle) and Sunny Perdue (the “King Roy Rat” ads. He was responsible this election for the Dole “Godless” ads, as well as the “celebrity” ad attacking Obama that featured Paris Hilton. Davis believes that these ads were responsible for improved polling numbers for his candidates. He claims that Dole won 60% of the votes on election day after his “Godless” attack ads, but the enormous early voting that the Obama campaign turned out led to Hagan’s victory.

I will show some of the ads here, but with mainstream news commentary around some of them, because I really don’t want to just amplify something that is so vile at its root.

If you know what I mean when I say that you feel like you were nearly seduced by evil, you know what I was feeling.  Davis has so much charm that you feel yourself being attracted to what he’s saying, only to stop and realize that what the man is doing is manipulative and at is core evil and wrong.

Probably the best example is when Davis played the three minute Michael Monsoor video that was used during the Republican National Convention this year.  If you’re not familiar with the story, Michael was a young Navy Seal who fell under enemy attack while on patrol in Iraq.  After being struck by a live hand grenade, this courageous young man fell on the grenade, ensuring his own death but saving the lives of the other young men with him.  It’s a moving story of heroism and self-sacrifice to be sure, and even as Davis replayed it he choked up.  So why would I say that the use of this video was evil?  Simply because it follows in a long line of examples of Republicans taking remarkable stories and trying to use them for their own political benefit.  Monsoor was a hero.  Using his tragic story to try to get votes, in my opinion, is a tragic, cynical and evil use of his sacrifice.  Sacrifice and service are not partisan. Neither the Republicans or Democrats hold a monopoly on patriotism and honor. Even McCain, who personally sacrificed so much, does not hold a monopoly on service and honor. But then again the Republicans were willing to use Kerry’s remarkable service against him in the “Swiftboat” ads. That marked a disgraceful new low. While not his work, that ad is part and parcel of the work that Davis does. Yes, Monsoor was a hero, and we ought to honor his sacrifice. But we should never attempt to use his remarkable service as a way to get more votes for one candidate over another. That, my friends, is disgraceful. But you almost forget that when you get caught up in the remarkable and emotional story.  And such is the way of Davis’ most successful efforts.

Some of the most interesting comments were about the struggle between maintaining an overall strategy (which Obama did with “Change”) and the daily tactical approach that the McCain campaign used, and which resulted in the changing messages which left only the impression of a candidate who had lost his essential self, and ended up hawking an inauthentic brand.

Davis is also a Sarah Palin fan, and claims she is a smart lady, and a future leader of the Republican Governors Conference.  When Davis talked about his high regard for Palin, it was all I could do not to shout out: “If Palin is so smart, she’s done an amazing job of hiding it in her overcoat of ignorance.”

Davis was appalled that people within the McCain camp had turned on Palin and spread stories about her ignorance – not knowing that Africa was a continent instead of a country; not being able to name the three parties to NAFTA (The United States, Mexico and Canada).  He said that top leaders of the campaign including Schmidt would be on talk shows this Sunday to rebut those claims, and that Schmidt had put Nicole Wallace (widely suspected from within the campaign as being the source of those comments, as she did not get along with Palin but was charged with her handling) in charge of shutting down that story line.

I left the session feeling like I had met the devil.  I have it in my mind that the devil is clever and charming, but that behind the easy smile and the effusive charm lies an evil that slips into the room silently and poisons all who allow themselves to be lulled to sleep.

One thing is for certain, to borrow a phrase from traditional conservative Peggy Noonan, we are witnessing the vulgarization of politics in America.  And the responsibility falls squarely on Fred Davis and his ilk, on the candidates who are willing to utilize these hit men, and on all of us who let them get away with it.

Categories: Bush · McCain · Palin · Palintology · Politics
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1 response so far ↓

  • RJ // November 8, 2008 at 11:43 pm | Reply

    Great Post! Thanks for sharing your notes from the enemy camp.

    It’s hard to believe any thinking person would take these ads seriously. They look like Daily Show parodies.

    Living in a reliably blue state, I missed out on some of the more egregious Republican attack ads. But having now viewed some of Mr. Davis’ greatest hits, I wonder how much talent it really takes to churn out these absurd spots. The formula seems pretty simple: Identify 2-3 candidate vulnerabilities and exaggerate them with quotes taken out of context, misleading juxtapositions, a handful of bad actors, and a sinister voice over narration. Toss in a few conservative boogie men (child molesters, welfare queens, sex educators, scary black criminals) and voila–you have your spot.

    Or maybe the devil just makes it look easy for his own nefarious reasons. Speaking of which, what is with Fred’s hideous haircut? He looks like a New Age motivational speaker or a Bee Gee.

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