While hosting a real-life radio program in Huntsville, Ala., Mr. Ehlinger met congressional candidate Les Phillip, who asked him to create an online ad.
The result bore all the provocative hallmarks of Mr. Ehlinger’s subsequent spots. Titled “A Story of Two Men,” it featured Mr. Phillip attacking not his local opponents, but rather Mr. Obama, claiming the president “played with terrorists and allowed his America-hating pastor to baptize his children.”
At the end of the commercial, Mr. Phillip — who is black — whips off his glasses and says, “They’re not going to call me a racist.”
“An ad that works has to have a good guy and a good villain,” Mr. Ehlinger said. “You have to find something that people are afraid to say, but believe. You have to be humorous somehow.
“An emotional argument will almost always win over a logical one. More people watch reality TV than the nightly news. So you have to have some kind of damn drama. Otherwise, you die on the vine.”
Too much drama?
Following its release, Mr. Oxner’s ad was denounced as insensitive and racist for portraying Mr. Obama — a man with African heritage — as the captain of a slave ship.
Mr. Oxner insists the spot was not intended to offend and that the connection to slavery did not occur to him during its production.
He also has neither apologized for, nor pulled the ad, which subsequently has been used by two black Republican candidates, Connecticut Senate hopeful Brian Hill and Maryland congressional aspirant Glenn Morton.
“We wanted the ad to be controversial, but we thought the controversy would be around showing that Obama was a socialist,” Mr. Oxner said. “I can understand how people can misunderstand it. We’ve gotten hate mail. But we’ve also gotten a lot of positive reaction from the people that really get it.”
Is Mr. Ehlinger’s brand of online trouble-stirring a viable political strategy? That remains an open question.
Long shots from the start, Mr. Phillip, Mr. Peterson and Mr. Huey ultimately lost their races. So did John Dennis, who ran against former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi in 2010 and is again campaigning for a California congressional seat this year.
“If there’s any one thing that people will remember from a campaign where we got beaten pretty solidly, it’s that video,” Mr. Dennis said. “It helped our online fundraising and telemarketing, increased our name recognition.”
Nevertheless, Mr. Dennis declined to use a second spot that spoofed James Bond films.