Violence of the Lambs
The weird genius behind Carly Fiorina's "demon sheep" ad.
The Spot:Open on a pasture full of grazing sheep. A woman's voice speaks as words flash on-screen: "Purity. Piety. … Wholesome. Honorable. True Believers. Men like Tom Campbell, who would never lead us astray, his pedestal so high." An animation shows one sheep elevated atop a tall column, high above the others. Suddenly clouds gather, lightning strikes, and the sheep falls. Ominous music as a new, evil-sounding male voice tells us about how Tom Campbell raised taxes as California's chief budget officer. "Is that fiscally conservative, Tom?" Intercut with quick images of pigs and sheep. Finally, cut back to sheep grazing. "Tom Campbell: Is he what he tells us? Or is he what he's become over the years? A F-C-I-N-O? Fiscal Conservative in Name Only? A wolf in sheep's clothing?" Cut to man in red-eyed sheep costume crawling through the meadow, scaring the other sheep away. "Might there be a better choice?" the voice asks. Cut to Carly Fiorina in a conference room. "Someone who has not made a career of politics. A political outsider. Perhaps a proven fiscal conservative. … Now that sounds like the right choice for California."
Political advertising is an inherently conservative form. And conservative politicians use it especially conservatively. Anything other than softly lit shots of a candidate and his or her family, with perhaps a cutaway or two to the flag or some hardworking Americans, is considered high-risk. Attack ads are even more likely to backfire and are thus to be used only in times of desperation.
Which may explain the bewildered response to Carly Fiorina's new ad, "FCINO." Wonkette called the ruby-eyed sheep's first appearance "the absolute most terrifying second of video on YouTube since the most recently uploaded clip of Roger Ailes." Valleywag dubbed it "inept." One new media expert dismissed it as "Jon Stewart material." Meanwhile, #demonsheep is currently a trending topic on Twitter, and some quick thinker is tweeting away as @demonsheep. Both opponents of Fiorina, the former CEO of H-P who is running for the Republican nomination for Barbara Boxer's Senate seat, have piled on.
The man to credit—or to blame—is Republican media consultant Fred Davis, the closest thing political advertising has to an auteur. Unlike just about any political media guru out there, Davis embraces weirdness. His oeuvre includes a giant rat storming through downtown Atlanta, a massive hairpiece atop the Illinois statehouse, and a full-length cowboy Western song about a sitting senator. You'd think most campaigns would either laugh him out of the room or run screaming.
And yet, he gets hired. McCain campaign strategist Steve Schmidt called him "the most creative person in the business—period." When the Fiorina campaign brought him onboard, it knew what it was getting. "He has a reputation for doing things outside the box, that grab attention," says Fiorina spokeswoman Julie Soderlund.
His ads may not be instantly recognizable, but they do contain similar themes and motifs. Aerial shots of American landscape abound. Better yet, giant things casting shadows across aerial shots of American landscape. Time-lapse footage helps suggest that your candidate can navigate a chaotic world with a sense of calm and direction. If you can get your candidate to stand along a fence—George W. Bush, Sonny Perdue—by all means do. Animal metaphors? Go for it. Former Gov. Roy Barnes of Georgia is depicted as "King Roy," a Godzilla-sized rat storming through downtown Atlanta. Sen. John Cornyn of Texas is intercut with shots of horses running free and a Cornyn look-alike atop one. And, yes, Tom Campbell is a Satanic man-sheep furry from hell.
Davis can do positive—see this family-friendly spot he produced for Elizabeth Dole in 2002—but he nails negative. He's the guy behind the "Celeb" ad in 2008 that turned the widespread adoration for Barack Obama on its head. His spot that shows men and women on the street sharing doubts about then-senatorial candidate Harold Ford predicted the RNC's more famous—and more ham-handed—"Playboy bunny" attack ad. And his sendup of a carpetbagging House candidate in Georgia is one of the funniest political ads on the Web.
Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.