The Attack Ads John McCain Never Ran

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I recently spoke to Fred Davis III, the advertising mastermind behind John McCain’s presidential run. Looking back, he described a campaign of missed opportunities. “I made a list once, which no one will ever see, of all the reasons that my hands were tied on this campaign,” he told me. “And I’ve never had a list this long.”

The biggest handcuff, he said, was the concern that McCain’s attacks on Obama would be viewed as playing the race card. (The campaign still ran into trouble; McCain’s operation was accused of playing the race card here and here.) Davis described an environment of overwhelming caution at McCain campaign headquarters. A series of spots that Davis made attacking Obama’s record on crime never ran, because of concerns that they would be seen as playing to racial bigotry. The campaign dropped drums from ad scores because they might be viewed as an African tribal reference. Davis said he avoided using bad photos of Obama in the spots because of concerns about racism charges. Most importantly, the campaign never went close to Rev. Jeremiah Wright, on orders from McCain himself. But Davis still developed ads to attack Obama on Wright.

“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.'”

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