Ladd Ehlinger Jr. jokes that he’s only shot campaign ads for three people, and he’s managed to get two of them named “worst person in the world” by left-wing MSNBC talk-show host Keith Olbermann.
“You can tell, you can look at Olbermann and you can tell, he’s trying to look angry but he’s having a really hard time doing it,” Ehlinger said while laughing in an interview with The Daily Caller.
And that — the over-the-top theatrics, the caricature, and the fact that you’re never quite sure how seriously to take Peterson, because you can’t tell how seriously he’s taking himself — is the whole point, says the 41-year-old filmmaker.
“On television, you’re buying lazy people who are too fat to hit the mute button during commercials,” Ehlinger said. “On the internet, nobody has to watch your stupid ad. You have to come up with something interesting and entertaining for them to look at.”
It’s a potent strategy. Collectively, the spots Ehlinger has created have reached more than a million viewers on YouTube and have been replayed on cable news shows, reaching millions more.
Ehlinger isn’t, though, who you’d think of as a shrewd political operator. He studied film and then computer science at public universities, and worked as an animator for the military and for NASA before switching to independent moviemaking. He’s created two feature films: “Flatland,” an adaptation of an 1884 novella about a two-dimensional world, and “Hive Mind,” a movie whose website describes its plot simply by asking, “What if a conservative talk show host like Rush Limbaugh were the last man on earth — and everyone else had been converted into nudist zombies?”
Campaign ads were almost an accident.
“I ended up doing a little radio show here in Huntsville and interviewed a bunch of different politicians,” Ehlinger said. “One of them asked me if I would do his ads for him.”
That was Les Phillip, who was then running for U.S. Congress in Alabama’s fifth district. The second ad Ehlinger and Phillip put out, “A Story of Two Men,” was sharply critical of President Obama.
“I’m going to Congress to help stop him from destroying our nation,” Phillip states at the end of the ad, before whipping off his glasses and adding, “and they’re not going to call me a racist.”
Phillip, you see, is black.
Needless to say, the spot made waves.
“It got shown on The O’Reilly Factor and a couple of other places,” Ehlinger said.
From there, Ehlinger found work with the now legendary Dale Peterson, who became so popular that he inspired a parody on Will Ferrell’s humor website Funny or Die, and Rick Barber, who is in a July 13 runoff for the Republican nomination in Alabama’s second congressional district.
Ehlinger’s advertisements seem to be hitting their mark.
“Dale Peterson went from 5 percent in the polls to 28 percent of the vote in two, three weeks time,” Ehlinger said.
That the ads have alienated a few people along the way is part of the point. Ehlinger calls one of his strategies the “brier patch.”
“The idea is that you state a position that you know is not going to be popular to everybody,” he said. “You state a position that you know is going to get some people upset — specifically so the other side that agrees with you will come to your defense.”
Ehlinger calls his other tactic the “Nazareth strategy,” coined in reference to the Biblical verse in which Nathaniel doubts Jesus by asking, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
“I guess what it means is you are more impressed with someone who is a success outside of your hometown,” Ehlinger said.
In other words, as soon as a homegrown candidate shows up on national TV, his standing jumps in the eyes of locals. An appearance on Fox News can be huge for a grassroots campaign.
“You have to realize they’re all underdog candidates,” Ehlinger said.
Barber, a Tea Party favorite, helped force GOP frontrunner Martha Roby into a runoff, but still lagged by approximately 20 points in the June 1 primary.
“We ran our initial primary race on just hard, grassroots efforts — going door to door, driving a lot,” Barber said. “But we were still behind.”
With just over a month left before the runoff, Barber knew he could only shake so many hands in the 16-county district. His campaign was being outspent almost seven to one, too.
“In the primary my counterpart spent half a million dollars to my 75 thousand dollars,” Barber said.
What he needed, Barber explained, was to marry his message with the right director. Ehlinger was his man.
Once they connected, the production of the “Gather Your Armies” ad, from conception to final product, took about eight days.
Ehlinger met Barber at his home to talk ideas and philosophy, and, based on that discussion, drew up an initial script, which then bounced back and forth for revision. Ehlinger rented equipment, including a $150,000 camera, and found actors to play the roles of George Washington, Samuel Adams and Benjamin Franklin.
“There are a number of people — you wouldn’t believe — who advertise themselves as lookalikes for any character you want,” Barber’s campaign manager Yates Walker noted.
Finally, they gathered at Deja Vu Billiards, a Montgomery pool hall owned by Barber, and shot the spot in the course of about four hours.
Some of the ensuing media firestorm was anticipated.
“You could make a spoken-straight-to-the-camera ad talking in bland terms about the threat of socialism, or you can do something to accent it and get more attention — and that’s what we did,” Walker said. “Rick wouldn’t have taken the stand if he didn’t know he could take the hit.”
Criticism of Barber has been much harsher than that of Phillip or Peterson. The campaign has received hate mail. Keith Olbermann, in a profanity-laced rant during the aforementioned “worst person in the world” segment, called the spot an “incitement of treason,” and announced his hope that Barber would be thrown in jail.
But the ad has had the intended effect, too, so much so that Barber cut a second spot — this time featuring Abraham Lincoln.
“Fundraising has definitely increased,” Walker said. “We’ve made money off both of our ads.”
More importantly, as he travels the district, Barber says his message has begun to precede him.
“I think more than anything our name is out there, people know who we are,” Barber said. “Hopefully we’ll push this into victory.”
It would be a victory not just for Barber, but a big first win for Ehlinger’s slate, too. Phillip and Peterson fell in primary battles, both at third place in their respective races.
But although they won’t be taking office, they did help cement Ehlinger’s reputation as a producer of conservative viral videos.
“I think Ladd has found a niche for himself. I don’t think there are many conservatives that do what he does,” Walker said. “Whether or not we win or lose, Ladd certainly helped make Rick a national name.”
It’s what he hopes to do for others, too. Ehlinger is mum on specifics, but says he is currently working with approximately four additional campaigns. The biggest problem, he says, is finding candidates that are willing to step out on a limb.
“A lot of politicians are boring. And you know, they play it safe,” Ehlinger said. “Mitt Romney’s not going to make a viral video, because he’s too blow-dried. So the main thing is to try to find politicians who aren’t sitting there with memorized talking points.”
And that’s exactly Ehlinger’s advice, for his own clients and for others — ditch the contrived storyline and stop pulling punches. A candidate can’t be everything to everyone, so maybe it’s time to stop pandering and take a stand.
“People respect you when you say what you believe,” Ehlinger said, “even if you’re saying something that a third of the electorate thinks is crazy.”