GOP Ad Guru Fred Davis versus the Truth-O-Meter
By Robert Farley
Published on Thursday, September 23rd, 2010 at 3:35 p.m.
The Washington Post profiled a guy on Sept. 22, 2010, whose name you've probably never heard of, but whose work you are probably familiar with if you are a regular reader of PolitiFact.
The name is Fred Davis, and he's the man behind some of the most widely-viewed viral campaign videos on behalf of Republican candidates. Remember the McCain ad in the presidential election that mocked Barack Obama's celebrity, comparing him with Britney Spears and Paris Hilton? How about the creepy "Demon Sheep" ad from Republican Senate Candidate Carly Fiorina, attacking her then-opponent, Republican Tom Campbell? Or the bizarre image of Sen. Barbara Boxer's inflated head floating over California? All Davis creations.
Washington Post reporter Philip Rucker offered a rare glimpse into Davis' world, introducing him as "perhaps the most sought-after ad man in politics."
"A pioneering imagemaker in modern politics, Davis injects Hollywood glamour, and a dose of the bizarre, into the staid, paint-by-numbers formula of campaign advertisements," Rucker writes of Davis. "His ads are unforgettable. His candidates win races. So many politicians seek his services that he has to turn away business."
"But his attention-getting tactics veer toward the extreme -- in volume, in imagery, in divisive language -- and even his highest-profile candidates have to tell him when he's gone too far," Rucker states. "Of course, not every candidate is so restrained. When Davis issues another designed-to-go-viral commercial, his work can often be as admired for its creativity as decried for its corrosive effects on political discourse."
Not surprisingly, Davis' ads have gotten our attention here at PolitiFact over the past few years. Truth be told, we didn't even know Davis was the common denominator of many of these these ads. And so we thought it would be interesting to see how the ads -- and our fact-checks of some responses to them -- have fared on the Truth-O-Meter.
* We didn't check Davis' most talked-about ad, "Demon Sheep," a three-minute web video that shows real sheep frolicking in a field while an phony sheep with glowing red eyes prowls the perimeter -- while an ominous sounding narrator attacks Campbell. But we did check the Democrats' "sequel," which they called "Demon Sheep II: The Fleecing of California." We looked into the ad's claim that Fiorina laid off 28,000 workers as CEO of Hewlett-Packard.
* One of the strangest political ads we've seen this year is "Hot Air: The Movie." Another ad for the Fiorina campaign, the seven and a half minute video shows an animated Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., at a committee hearing in Congress. Her head starts expanding and expanding (ego...get it?) until it floats into air, pulling Boxer from her chair and bursting through the Capitol dome. Then Boxer turns into a large blimp with loudspeakers on top and TV screens around the bottom, floating over the California landscape, broadcasting inanities. We weighed in with a fact-check of the ad's claim that Boxer has "passed only three bills in 18 years" into law. "One named a local courthouse. One named part of a river -- in Virginia. And the third brought California some money to retrofit bridges. Three bills," the narrator said. We rated that claim False.
* In the midst of a smoldering immigration debate, Alabama gubernatorial candidate Tim James sparked a political firestorm with a campaign ad calling for state driver's license exams to be given only in English. "Why do our politicians make us give driver's license exams in 12 languages?" James said in the ad. "This is Alabama. We speak English. If you want to live here, learn it. We're only giving the test in English if I'm governor." James defended his stance, in part, by saying it was a public safety issue. And James cited a 2003 Bureau of Labor Statistics report that he claimed showed an alarming rise in work-related traffic fatalities due to the fact that increasing numbers of employees and drivers could not read or understand warning signs in English. We checked it out and discovered the report did not say that at all. We rated James' claim False.
* Back in the presidential election, Davis' ad for the McCain campaign mocked Barack Obama's celebrity, flashing images of Britney Spears and Paris Hilton, before the narrator began, "He's the biggest celebrity in the world..." We checked a claim in the ad that Obama wanted to raise taxes on electricity. The proposals he made during the campaign said nothing about a tax on electricity, and the ad's claim turned out to have flimsy backing in a complex Obama quote. We rated the claim Barely True.
* In the Republican primary to retain his Senate seat against challenger J.D. Hayworth, Sen. John McCain's raised eyebrows with an ad that took a hard line on border security, with McCain walking along the border and famously saying, "Complete the danged fence." Hayworth countered with an ad that called McCain's stance a lie, claiming McCain opposed the border fence. We rated Hayworth's claim False.
* In the Republican race for governor of Georgia, Davis created an ad for Karen Handel that began with an attention-grabbing opening line, "Three with iffy ethics. One who wears lipstick." The three were Handel's male opponents. We didn't check that ad, but our friends at PolitiFact Georgia looked into a claim from the campaign of former U.S. Rep. Nathan Deal that Handel has run "a 100 percent negative campaign." It cited the "Lipstick" ad as evidence, and got a Mostly True rating.
* In September 2010, a group called Citizens for the Republic unveiled a Davis-crafted television ad called "Mourning in America" that mirrored, right down to its understated visuals and narration, a famous Ronald Reagan ad from his 1984 re-election campaign titled "Morning in America." Whereas the original ad exuded confidence and pride in the United States under Reagan's leadership, the new version -- aired by a group run by veterans of the Reagan administration -- presented a bleak look at the current state of the economy and a tone of sadness about the country's seemingly diminished prospects. We looked at four statistics in the ad and found all of them to be very close to accurate. So we rated the facts in the ad True.
In the Washington Post story, Davis said the aim of his ads is always to get noticed and be different.
"My goal is to give you elements that jar what you're expecting," Davis said. "You're numbed by 20 million ads before you, but I want you to stop on this one."
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Researchers: Robert Farley
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