Political online ads go viral, but are they viable?

Gadfly producer helps politicians push limits with outlandish spots

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Punching up

Mr. Oxner had a choice. A 50-year-old businessman with few Republican party connections and no previous political experience, he could have filmed a conventional campaign spot, touting his entrepreneurial successes and conservative political beliefs — all of which would have made him just like every other small-time, no-name GOP congressional candidate.

Instead, he decided to punch up, teaming with Mr. Ehlinger and taking inspiration from Mr. Cain and George Washington — no, really — while taking on Mr. Obama and Mr. Grayson in the most gonzo, eyeball-grabbing way possible.

“Sometimes I’ll ask people, ‘Hey, can I come speak to your group?’” Mr. Oxner said. “And they’re like, ‘Who are you?’ For someone in my place, fighting the old traditional campaign is not to my advantage.

Washington waged guerrilla warfare. He didn’t follow the old rules. He fought to win. With the Internet, we’re in a new world, and you have to fight in a new way.”

According to Mr. Ehlinger, screwball ads are best deployed by insurgent, underdog candidates, largely because any national exposure — positive or negative — increases their local stature.

Case in point? Mr. Ehlinger’s 2010 spot for Alabama agricultural commissioner aspirant Dale Peterson inspired coast-to-coast mockery and incredulity for portraying the candidate as a straight-talkin’, horse-riding’, shotgun-totin’, smokeless Marlboro Man incarnate — but it also collected millions of YouTube views and dozens of television mentions, catapulting Mr. Peterson from single-digit polling numbers to 28 percent of the vote in a three-way race.

A second ad produced by Mr. Ehlinger for former Alabama congressional candidate Rick Barber — in which Mr. Barber pledges his fealty to the Constitution and laments the tyranny of the Internal Revenue Service to an actor portraying Washington, who coolly tells the prospective legislator to “gather your armies” — drew a heated televised rebuke from liberal broadcaster Keith Olbermann.

In a fit of high fainting-couch dudgeon, Mr. Olbermann labeled the spot a prosecutable incitement to treason. He dubbed Mr. Barber “the Worst Person in the World.”

In short, he played right into what Mr. Ehlinger calls a “briar patch” strategy — deliberately antagonizing political opponents into attacking his candidate, the better to rally sympathetic partisans to their defense.

“It’s basically to attract the trolls,” Mr. Ehlinger said. “And then conservatives come in and play whack-a-troll. People spend their time online gauging who’s winning. In a way, it’s political theater. And you’re a participant in the play.”

For candidates like Mr. Oxner, online ads also are cost-effective. While television airtime is expensive — and becoming more so in an age of corporate-funded super PACs — Internet distribution essentially is free. Click a button, upload to YouTube and let bloggers, news websites and social networks do the rest.

According to a Pew Research Center survey conducted last year, the number of Americans who say they consider the Internet a main news source more than doubled over the previous decade, rising from 13 percent to 41 percent. Over the same span, the number of people who consider television a main news source dropped from 74 percent to 66 percent.

The trend was most pronounced among 18-to-29-year-olds, with 65 percent citing the Internet as a main news source and 52 percent citing television.

“Online ads are never going to replace TV, but their importance is certainly growing,” said Kate Kaye, a senior editor for the website ClickZ News and the author of “Campaign ‘08: A Turning Point for Digital Media.”

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