McCain Ads That Didn’t Run
Most of John McCain’s television spots, going back to the primaries, were simply dreadful. Now, Fred Davis III, the “advertising whiz” behind these atrocious ads, is whining to TIME’s Michael Scherer that McCain wouldn’t let him run some particularly clever ones.
What if the McCain campaign had run ads using footage of Barack Obama dancing with Ellen DeGeneres to show his coziness with celebrity? Or followed up on its Paris Hilton ad with others featuring Donald Trump and Jessica Simpson? All of that was on the drawing board of Fred Davis III, the advertising whiz that John McCain has used for almost all of his campaign media and one of the most talented conservative political operatives in America. Oh yes, he also had an Internet ad up his sleeve that would attack Obama’s celebrity by associating him with Oprah. But in the end, he scotched that one. “We decided you don’t really fight Santa Claus or Oprah,” he says, “so we removed her.”
Indeed. The whole “celebrity” theme was idiotic. Whining that the opponent is popular and getting favorable press treatment is not exactly presidential. That’s doubly true if you’re also popular and known for good relations with the press.
“My favorite ad of the campaign was as simple as it could be,” Davis said. “And it started out something like, ‘Long before the world knew of John McCain or Barack Obama, one of them spent five years in a hellhole because he refused early release to honor his fellow prisoners, while the other one wouldn’t walk out of a church after 20 years of the guy spewing hatred towards America.’ And the last line was, ‘Character matters, especially when no one is listening.’ ” The ad never ran, however, because McCain ruled the topic of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the preacher of Obama’s Chicago church, out of bounds shortly after he locked up the Republican nomination.
That’s actually not a bad ad. Still, it’s probably something you’d rather have a sympathetic 527 group run rather than following it with “I’m John McCain and I approve this message.
One of his biggest struggles, Davis says, was to come up with negative spots against a historic, groundbreaking candidate without stepping on taboos. “One of the big hands that I felt was tied behind my back was [that] so many things — like [Obama’s record on] crime — you would logically do were perceived as ‘Oh, we can’t do that. That was playing the race card,’ ” he says, adding that the campaign created a whole series of crime attacks against Obama that were never aired. “Reverend Wright? ‘Oh, can’t do that; they’ll say we are playing the race card.’ [William] Ayers? For the longest time, ‘Oh, can’t do that. We’re playing the race card.’ ”
Davis says that concern about race played a major role in the entire aesthetic of McCain’s ads. The photographs of Obama that the ads used, for instance, which often showed Obama elongated and smiling, were carefully selected, he recalls. “We chose them with only one thing in mind, and that is to not make them bad pictures because bad pictures would be seen as racist,” Davis says. “How many shots in their ads did they use a John McCain [photo] looking decent and smiling?” He says the campaign also agonized over the music in the ads, paying special care not to play drum-heavy tracks that could be seen as an African tribal reference. “We were held to a totally different standard,” he says.
Nevertheless, the McCain campaign was unable to escape the charge that it was playing the race card. An Associated Press analysis called the campaign’s invocations of the once violent 1960s radical Ayers “racially tinged” because they evoked the word terrorist. McCain was also accused of playing on race for running an ad that highlighted Obama’s relationship with Franklin Raines, a former executive at Fannie Mae who is black. Says Davis: “I never saw anybody play the race card but the Obama campaign.”
Townhall’s Carol Platt Liebau writes, “It seems pretty obvious that John McCain was afraid of going down in history as the guy who prevented the first African-American major party nominee from being elected on account of what the Obama-adoring press would have inevitably described as ‘dirty tricks’ (even if they hadn’t been). So he pulled his punches and lost.”
Well . . . no. McCain ultimately ran a pretty tough campaign, going negative when he had to. But McCain’s tactical judgment was right here. The Obama campaign was masterful, going back to the primary campaign against Hillary Clinton, at making any attack on their candidate “racist,” thus putting the opponent on the defensive. That was going to be doubly effective against a Republican candidate, because the national press is predisposed to the idea that when Republicans talk about crime, social policy, religion, or pretty much anything else it’s actually a clever racist dog whistle. That’s unfair but it’s also a fact that McCain had to live with.