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.
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?
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.