Downs says his party shouldn't hit the panic button after 2012. Ad makers just need to embrace a less traditional approach.
Jon Downs is a partner at FP1 Strategies, a Republican public affairs, advertising and media relations firm. During the 2012 cycle, the firm did work for all four Republican Party committees, as well as media work for Ted Cruz in Texas and Allen West in Florida. During the Republican primary season, Downs also created ads for Ron Paul’s presidential campaign.C&E: You did one of the most notable negative ads of the cycle—the one that featured Patrick Murphy’s mug shot in his race against Allen West in Florida. How did that ad come together?Downs: It’s obviously sensitive subject matter. It’s not every day that you see a mug shot like that in an ad. So we wanted to handle it appropriately, and we felt to do that we had to make an ad that rose to a certain level—not something that was not going to be totally gratuitous. Although I’m sure there are some who say it was. We wanted to do something that wasn’t just a straight character assault but something that framed the race—and it did. This was an important time for our country and this was an important race and that’s kind of what led us to that point. It would have been pretty easy to just hit him with a straight-up nasty negative and have just said, “Here, look at this guy’s mug shot for 30 seconds.” But at the end of the day elections are about choices, and we felt like this ad set up the choice pretty clearly. We also went with that contrast ad in October. I don’t know that everyone would have done that, but I’m proud of the ad that we put together.C&E: How was the spot received by the campaign and the candidate? Was there any hesitation?Downs: You know people are surprised when I say this but Allen West was never the type of guy to say, “Let’s go out and rip this guy’s heart out.” That’s not the kind of guy he is. In fact, he was very clear—clearer than some other clients I’ve worked for—that he wanted to be fair and he wanted to be about issues. That’s part of the reason we framed the ad that way because it was about two different types of people and who would be helping lead the country at a difficult time. He was OK with it because we framed it that way, and frankly we got less backlash on it than some might have expected. Right after it ran a lot of people said the race was over. I wish they were right in that analysis. They were also running some pretty good ads on the other side against us.C&E: How did your work with Ron Paul’s campaign come about?Downs: Consulting is a bit of a small world, but of course it gets a little bit bigger when you’re talking about someone like Ron Paul who doesn’t exactly follow the establishment consulting selections. But long story short, a guy named Trygve Olson was a consultant for the National Republican Senatorial Committee in 2010, and he was sent out to do Rand Paul’s Senate race in Kentucky. He ended up being brought on as a consultant for Ron Paul’s presidential race and he knew of my work, and so he suggested they bring me in for a pitch.C&E: What was the reaction from colleagues in more establishment Republican circles when you started working for Paul?Downs: I think it was mixed. My feeling on this is what I said when I met with the campaign—a lot of who Ron Paul is simply isn’t understood by the general public or the consulting community for that matter. I felt like he had such a great story to tell, especially given where we were as a party—dealing with issues of spending and big government. These are things this guy has been saying forever. Not only is he right on the issues, but he’s so credible on this. And those are the two key ingredients right now. Obviously on foreign policy there are some differences with the party. But I was excited to tell his story. There were certainly some people who didn’t see the full picture as I did—the establishment types. But while it certainly wasn’t just my ads that did it, I do think through that race a lot of people were able to see Ron Paul in a different light.C&E: What was the creative approach you took with those ads? They looked nothing like any of Ron Paul’s previous spots.Downs: That was one of my promises. I’m a big believer in doing ads that look and feel different. I’m a believer in doing things that have a little bit of an edge when it calls for it. We were able to do that across the board in that race, and we had a great platform to work from because we had a candidate who was so right on these issues and so pure on so many of them. In a race for president of the United States you can’t be too big in your advertising. This is the leader of the free world. If I ran some of those ads for a guy running for Congress or attorney general, it might have been a little bit much.