Ladd Ehlinger Jr. has worn many hats in his varied career – writer, director, producer, editor, cinematographer, 3D animator, blogger, programmer, weapon systems designer, even radio talk show host.
He’s also created some of the most recognizable political ads of the 2010 Tea Party wave that was responsible for Republicans taking back the House. His ad for Dale Peterson for Alabama Agriculture Commissioner has received over 2 million hits on YouTube and has spawned its own spoofs, not to mention his ad “Gather Your Armies” for Rick Barber for Congress which became a favorite of tea party activists. (You know the one: candidate sits around talking angrily with the founding fathers).
Given his skill in knowing how to make ads go viral, we wanted to know what makes “FilmLadd” tick.
- Ed Miranda
Where do you get the inspiration for your campaign ads?
Depends on the subject, the goal. Frank Lloyd Wright was big into the design concept of form equaling function. The big problem I see in most political ads is that their makers haven’t quite figured out what the goal really is. Sure, you may have something like “win the election,” but that’s too big of a goal for an ad to accomplish. It has to be something less macro and more targeted. It could be something very simple like “piss off socialists” or “humanize the candidate with humor.”
Once you know what the goal is, the rest follows.
And by the way, there’s a big difference between television ads and viral ads. Viral ads entice the views; television ads pay for the views. TV ads can be as dull and stupid as you like, doesn’t matter, there’s always a fat bored guy who’s too lazy to press the mute button when your commercial plays. You can have a viral ad play on television, but you can’t have a television ad play on the Internet. No one will watch it.
Algorez Internetz is filled with campaign ads that were designed for television. They sit there lonely, isolated on some forgotten campaign page, with, like, 50 views.
The “Give Us Your Cash, Bitch” video seems to be one of your most famous/infamous ads. What are your thoughts on the reaction?
I expected a great deal of the anti-liberty media (TPM, Think Progress, Al Jazeera, Slate) to go crazy over it. I sent it first to Dave Weigel at Slate, because he’s the king of snark, and it exploded from there.
I had a lot of fun giving interviews to all the snark kings and then seeing how they would twist what I said. They didn’t realize that they were doing exactly what I wanted them to do. I think I laughed for three weeks straight.
It was a lot of fun seeing Politifact “debunk” the story on Janice Hahn’s collaborating with gangsters, and beating up on the local Fox News affiliate that did the original story. That roused the local Fox folks from their slumber two weeks before the election; they did a new story on Hahn’s ties to the Crips and Bloods. I re-contacted the Politifact reporter and asked him if he wanted to bet a case of beer on his “debunk” of my ad. He kinda slinked away. In fact I offered a lot of cases of beer to a lot of reporters in the national media. None of them took me up on that bet.
Now Janice Hahn is in a bit of hot water over redistricting, which was seen in some quarters as disenfranchising the African-American community in the area. It was obviously engineered to keep Hahn in office, despite her constituency’s wishes. It put her in direct conflict with Laura Richardson, an African-American woman who was going to run for Congress. Now the Democrat establishment in California is doing everything they can to bring up ethics charges against Mrs. Richardson and prevent her from her planned run. I think the California African-American community is finally waking up to the fact that Janice Hahn is no friend of theirs. She’s a weaselly politician and an airhead. She has what she has because she’s California political royalty, and she lords it over the serfs, and she yogas with Jane Harman, and woe unto people like Laura Richardson who get in her way.
I think it’s only a matter of time before Maxine Waters and Al Sharpton are out there defending Mrs. Richardson against the cigar-filled backrooms of Janice Hahn and Jane Harman. Could turn out to be a really cool cage fight.
I think Craig Huey ended up getting an extra eight points in a severely Republican-disadvantaged district from that ad I made. But Huey, because he isn’t a leader and really shouldn’t be running for dog catcher, ran around carping and whining about my ad, and still is to this day. Apparently his campaign strategy was to not let the Democrats know there was a special election, and only talk to Republicans in churches. Or something. It’s the pray-our-way-into-office strategy. Maybe that works in Tennessee, but Venice Beach? Like the Democrats will forget there’s an election in California, with the SEIU, OFA, CPUSA, and SWP crawling all over the place. Most retarded strategy I’ve ever heard of in my life. Wasted a ton of his money on high-priced consultants who told him not to go negative, blah blah. Meanwhile Janice Hahn is sending out negative mailers on him three times a day. I managed to erase Bill Clinton’s endorsement of Hahn out of the media altogether, otherwise, the story would have been “Bill Clinton endorses Hahn.” Not notice there’s an election? Give me a break.
Any consultant with half a brain would have concentrated on the gang connections, not run around with a tissue crying about that mean horrible ad. Even the NRCC realized what to say – well, we disagree with the tone of the ad, but the facts are correct. That was the way to react to it, if you wanted to win. But I don’t think Huey wanted to win. He should have been less concerned about expanding his bulk-mailer business into Sacramento political consulting, and more concerned on winning. Now he’s running for a lowly Assemblyman seat or something. I guess he’s still holding out hope that he’ll get political mail business out of it. Or sell his company. Or something.
Don’t run for office in today’s world if you’re only interested in losing with dignity.
Even so, for all his flaws, Huey would’ve been better for the district than Janice Hahn, and I’m disappointed that he engineered a loss for himself (“I must lose with dignity!”) despite the best efforts of many, many good people.
That’s not saying much, though. A vicious rabies-infected, poo-flinging, mentally-deficient orangutan would have been better than Janice Hahn – as I’m sure Laura Richardson knows by now. Hopefully she’ll work her way out of the mess Janice Hahn and Jane Harman have engineered for her before it’s too late, before she lands in jail.
There’s a fundamental misconception about that ad – that it was somehow put together by Huey behind the scenes, in collaboration with him, blah blah. That ad wasn’t about getting Huey elected, that ad was about defeating Janice Hahn, and by extension, Jane Harman. If not in that election, than in the future. That ad will haunt Hahn wherever she goes, as surely as the dead people she is responsible for. I know for a fact that even Teamster rank and file – who can’t stand Hahn – love to sing “Give me yo cash b-tch!” when she walks by.
And by the way, a picture of Harman’s face was plastered on the stripper’s butt, if you look closely. Right where it belongs.
Do you have free reign to create whatever you like?
I often hear that one group or another considered reaching out to me, but were worried I’d be too expensive, then they hired someone else who charged them ten times what I would have. And they got a crappy ad that went nowhere, or worse, blew up in their face (like Perry’s ad on gays). I do political ads for the cause and glory, not strictly for the bucks. This is because I am a filmmaker first, not a political consultant guru looking to retire off a sucker like Meg Whitman.
As for the free reign thing, it’s more about making sure that I am actually doing what the client needs me to do. I really only have one restriction, which is that I spend time with the real decision maker, not the consultant. If I’m making an ad for a political candidate, I need to get to know the candidate. I’m not a wedding videographer showing up to “capture” the candidate walking around in the grass spewing out words in a silly yellow jacket. I also have to break through the “psychological sycophant layer” for the candidate so I can tell him the truth as I see it. Cocooned candidates don’t do well on film, you can tell if they’ve walled themselves off from anything but praise.
Is there a formula for making a political video like yours that go viral?
E=MC2 excepted on Wednesdays and every other harvest moon.
Why do you think the Dale Peterson video had such a strong resonance with voters?
He was John Wayne in that ad. Conservatives are sick of crying wimpy men like Glenn Blech, they’re tired of men who parse their words in legalese. Say what you mean, mean what you say, and do it with a sense of humor, dammit. Don’t be afraid to call your opponent a dummy and do it with a laugh – if that’s what you really think. Also, Dale spent the time to memorize that script properly, and delivered it with gusto. I showed him a few weeks beforehand some of the memorizing tricks of the acting trade. There’s a reason Ronald Reagan was called “the great communicator.” He knew how to perform.
Your videos have a distinct character to them. After examples like Herman Cain’s “Smoking” video, do you believe political campaign videos are headed in a new direction?
I hope to God they’re not going in the direction of Herman Cain’s crappy “Smoking” video. First, he’s your campaign manager. Who gives a crap if he’s excited and endorses the candidate he works for? Second, Mark Block has a shady financial past and more importantly, he looks like he has a shady financial past. Third, the video looked like it was shot on a creepy web cam. Fourth, it looked like it was edited by an epileptic. Fifth, just because it goes viral for showing a creepy mustache guy smoking a cigarette, it doesn’t mean that’s a good thing for your candidate.
It’s not just about going viral, it’s about WHY you’re going viral. You could just shoot a commercial with your candidate getting kicked in the balls, or skateboarding off a steep cliff and landing on his head. That will go viral. That was basically Herman Cain’s crappy “Smoking” ad.
And look, I have no problem with the smoking part; it’s all the other mediocrity I couldn’t stand. Herman Cain’s whole “shtick” was, “I’ll hire the best and brightest.” And what does he do? Hire a wedding videographer to do his campaign ads. It demonstrated that Cain didn’t want to be President, he was just putting the shine on to sell books (that is Atlanta-speak for: he was a big fat lying phony).
If you want to look at a great political ad, I suggest the “Chinese Professor” ad. It was competently directed, written, shot, and edited. It had a clever concept, and it was executed with style. That was a great ad.
How do you deal with candidates or their supporters who don’t get the “tongue in cheek” nature of some of your ads?
I mostly don’t work for them. I figure if they don’t have a sense of humor, they probably shouldn’t be in politics. As the old coot miner said in The Treasure of Seirra Madre, “You can either laugh or cry, and laughing’s funner.” Or something like that. Anyway people that don’t care for my work don’t approach me, and I try not to spend time doing sales work, tracking people down. I did that for a while, but if I have to seek them out, they are probably too stupid to hire me.
What was the first race you worked for? Made a campaign video for?
Les Phillip. Great guy. Naval aviator. The second ad I did for him got played on The O’Reilly Factor two nights before the election. Didn’t help Les win (he was way behind) but it certainly raised a lot of money for him.
What kind of candidates or races do you like to work for the best?
Underdogs. First-time citizen candidates.
Can you give us a preview of what we can expect from your ads in 2012?
I’ve got quite a few lined up, but I can’t discuss them ahead of time; surprise is always important in the viral video world.
About the Author In early 2010, Ed began working as an intern for the Orange County Republican Party in California. Ed continued his work until May 2010, when the California Republican Party hired him to manage the Orange County Voter Registration Program. Ed is currently a private first class in the U.S. Army Reserves, and a student at Fullerton College. Read more from this author