The weird genius behind Carly Fiorina's "demon sheep" ad.

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Feb. 4 2010 7:10 PM

Violence of the Lambs

The weird genius behind Carly Fiorina's "demon sheep" ad.

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Bad political spots simply state a candidate's positions. Good ones evoke emotions that the viewer then associates with the candidate. The best ones take full advantage of the medium. To suggest that California gubernatorial candidate Phil Angelides would take the state backward, Davis used backward video to show a diver rising up out of a lake and traffic moving in reverse. He depicted widespread corruption in Chicago by showing hoards of men and women in suits wearing Ron Blagojevich-like wigs. He wouldn't be a bad choice to direct the next Coldplay video.

Then there's "FCINO." Where Davis's best ads are simple and clear, his "demon sheep" spot is confusing and sloppy. It took me two full views to figure out. Why is the voice-over praising Campbell at the beginning? Ah, sarcasm. But why is it good to be a sheep? Aren't they supposed to symbolize herd mentality or something? OK, I see, he loves taxes. Wait, now there are pigs and sheep? Also, how do you pronounce "FCINO"? I know it's like "RINO," but—OH GOD WHAT IS THAT THING? [Frantically shuts laptop.]

Soderlund, the campaign spokeswoman, told me the spot took about a week to make. The shots of the sheep, including the demon sheep, were not filmed for this spot in particular, but came from footage Davis had shot for another project. (Perhaps this one?) Fiorina has been down in the polls ever since Campbell joined the Republican primary, and this Web video—Fiorina's first—was presumably an attempt to capture attention and change the narrative. Well, it certainly has. Before, Fiorina was a former CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Now she's the lady who made the "demon sheep" ad. Voters may learn Fiorina's name because of this ad. But will they vote for her because of it?

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To its credit, the campaign gets the joke. "I think it's fine to make fun of it," says Soderlund. But self-awareness is easy to claim after the fact, and the campaign has proven itself to have a tin ear. Its first tagline: "Carlyfornia dreamin!!!" Its initial Web site was similarly bizarre. Soderlund promises more of the same. "If you were shocked by this, you'll be really shocked moving forward."

The unfortunate part is that taking chances should be encouraged. The fact that Davis is an anomaly says more about the dearth of creativity in political media than it does about Davis. Political advertising is a form that needs more risk-takers.

Grade: C+. "Rule number one in advertising: If your message isn't seen, you are wasting your money," Davis told the Washington Post in January. "Be big and bold. Be different." Mission accomplished. But rule No. 2 is also pretty important: Get your candidate elected, not mocked. It's hard to see how this ad burnishes Fiorina's reputation—or her chances in the June primary.

Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.