It has become one of the most intriguing television ads in Tennessee political history.
By all rights, it shouldn’t even be of interest, other than its normal rotation on television channels across the state. But it has become a talker.
Not because it is shocking. Not because it is negative. Not even because it’s considered especially creative.
The simple truth is the ad is plain vanilla, a spot run as a way of introducing Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam, who’s running for governor, to Tennesseans.
Yet the television ad created by prominent national Republican media consultant Fred Davis has developed a life of its own, for several reasons:
- Its early debut was made possible by a $5.7 million campaign warchest Haslam mounted.
- It was screened for members of the media, complete with an embargo for when they could publish anything about it, as though it were a Hollywood premier.
- Rival candidate Zach Wamp issued press releases expressing flattery that Haslam is advertising on TV because Haslam felt the heat of Wamp’s campaign.
- A campaign rival provided reporter Tom Humphrey of the Knoxville News-Sentinel details on what Haslam was spending on the initial TV buy, the total being $977,263.
- After the ad aired, Wamp said it looked like a “Pilot Oil ad,” referring to the Pilot Travel Centers, the Haslam family business, and that the Haslam campaign was wasting its money.
- Rival candidate Bill Gibbons said in a forum of Republican candidates Thursday he thought the ad was misleading and hammered Haslam for raising property taxes as mayor.
- One of the first questions asked of Haslam campaign consultant Tom Ingram about the ad was whether there was anything special about red umbrellas in it. Ingram said no, it was just raining, and some people don’t believe him.
So it seemed worthwhile just to call Davis, who returned the call from — where else? — the Hollywood Hills, where he has an office he loves but rarely sees because he’s working so much.
Davis is no run-of-the-mill media consultant. He handled Sen. John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign. Tennesseans know his work, even if they don’t know Davis, because he has handled ads for Lamar Alexander and was brought in for the last six weeks of Bob Corker’s 2006 race against Harold Ford Jr., although Davis did not handle the infamous “Harold, call me” ad the Republican National Committee stepped in and aired.
And Davis, who writes and directs all his ads, has caused a minor commotion in the political ad world with a current spot known as the “demon sheep” ad for Senate candidate Carly Fiorina in California that, it turns out, footage for might have been shot in Tennessee or Kentucky years ago. Davis can’t really remember.
The Haslam ad depicts Haslam’s early career helping build Pilot with his family, describes him as effectively leading Knoxville as mayor and shows Haslam campaigning door-to-door. That’s about it.
But red umbrellas. Demon sheep. Fred, what’s the deal?
Here’s the lowdown: Davis knows Ingram well. Ingram called Davis about two years ago “and told me he wanted me to meet one of the most remarkable people he’d ever met,” Davis said. That was Haslam. According to Davis, Haslam was pleasant but asked very probing, detailed questions.
“I’m not used to that kind of question. Most people don’t know much about my business,” he said. “Running for mayor and running for governor of the state are dramatically different. Yet this guy knew the questions to ask.”
Davis was hired. He describes Haslam as “one of the most, kind of, driven, knows-he’ll-be-a-success-at-anything-he-does guys I’ve ever met.”
In a big planning meeting, Davis met other members of the Haslam family.
“They’re all driven. They’re the same kind of people,” he said.
Davis knew he was talking to some wealthy people and wanted to hear “some glitz” and asked Haslam’s wife, Crissy, what Bill spends his money on. She laughed and said he didn’t spend any, that his proudest possession might be a 16-foot outboard boat they’ve had for years. Davis filmed spots with Haslam, and he’d ask people how they know Haslam and half turned out to be with organizations Haslam had quietly helped out.
“He’s almost humble to a fault,” Davis said.
So a day came when they were going to shoot and the forecast was rain. Davis said Ingram “is exactly right.” It was raining. They needed umbrellas. Simple as that. But this is where the truth gets blurry, because Davis is a director.
“I’m looking for things that are interesting, that will stand out,” he said. “If Bill Haslam is walking down the street, that may or may not be interesting. If Bill Haslam is walking down the street in the rain, that might be a little more interesting. If he’s walking down the street in the rain with a bunch of people around him, that may be more interesting still. And if he’s walking down the street in the rain with people, and they all have red umbrellas…
“You asked me a question about umbrellas. Look, you would never have asked about his tennis shoes. There was just something about those red umbrellas that stuck out. Tom’s exactly right. Was it some cleverly planned thing? No, it wasn’t. But the goal was to show the truth, and that is that Bill Haslam is so driven. This isn’t any fake TV ploy that he knocks on these doors.”
Just to nail it down, “We thought, let’s get some umbrellas. I think I might have said get as many as you can and make ’em red, and we’ll make it a good thing instead of a bad thing,” he said.
The crew purchased the umbrellas from a variety of Tennessee drug stores. They got as many at each store as they had. If the umbrellas look like they have a Haslam logo on them, those are stickers.
And as for the Fiorina sheep ad, the team was discussing ideas, a wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing theme came to mind, Davis recalled he had something in stock he shot maybe 10 years ago in Tennessee or Kentucky maybe. They found it and put the ad together in less than a day.
That’s California politics. There won’t be any demon sheep ads in Tennessee.
But what is in the next Haslam ad?
“Now, you know I can’t tell you that,” Davis said.