The way that Fred N. Davis III sees it, there isn’t much difference between promoting burgers and promoting potential presidents.
“I’ve said that there is no difference between marketing products and marketing political candidates, but that’s an overstatement,” says the Tulsa-born media strategist.
“They are very, very similar. In both cases, research shows what people like and what they don’t like about a product. You then find a striking way to make people focus on what they like and overlook what they don’t.”
There are some differences.
“You don’t have much say in what’s in a Burger King burger,” Davis illustrates. “(In politics) you have more input into the actual product.”
That sense of creative input reminds Davis of his early days as “the kid in the neighborhood who was always putting on plays.”
“I’m doing exactly the same thing today, only I get paid and the productions are more elaborate,” Davis quips.
In a field in which risky and daring are anathema, Davis and his cohorts at Strategic Perception, Inc. have garnered success and acclaim for applying corporate marketing techniques to the staid world of political campaigns.
As chief creative consultant to John McCain’s presidential campaign, Davis tailored the commercial featuring Barack Obama as “the biggest celebrity in the world,” comparing him to Paris Hilton and Britney Spears, which went viral online. Davis was also responsible for Carly Fiorina’s “demon sheep” ad in California and Christine O’Donnell’s “I am not a witch” effort in Delaware, among numerous others.
The industry takes notice of Davis’ work. He’s garnered numerous industry awards.
“The thing I like about politics is the immediacy,” says Davis. “In politics, you write it at 4 a.m. and it gets on television at 6 p.m. Contrast that to a (commercial) campaign I’ve been working on for a year and a half.”
Davis’ penchant for theatrics could have been confined to theater. At 19, his father died and Davis took over his public relations firm. The firm had grown dramatically with big-name corporate clients, when his uncle, Oklahoma Congressman James M. Inhofe asked Davis to help save his ailing U.S. Senate bid.
“He couldn’t afford to pay me, so the deal was that I would do it but that he wouldn’t get much say in what was in the ads,” Davis says. “I wanted to apply corporate marketing strategies to politics.”
After a dramatic ad featuring dancing felons, Inhofe claimed a 30-point swing in the polls – and victory.
“The phone started ringing off the hook,” he says.
Davis says that he has no regrets for his work’s colorful nature – even the controversial “I am not a witch” ad that was lampooned nationally.
“It was a success,” he says. “(O’Donnell) was down 17 points before it and we cut that to 11 points in four days. It was supposed to be the first in a series of ads, but she decided she needed to attack her opponent instead.”
Davis credits his success largely to being in the right place at the right time – which today still includes offices in Tulsa.
“I’ve got the greatest job in the world – it’s all luck,” he says. “I’ve been in the right place at the right time, like Forrest Gump.”