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Patrick Hruby

Bait and Bitch

Online political attack ads and the art of trolling

few weeks ago, I wrote a piece for the Washington Times about the rise of online political ads that are designed to go viral -- largely by being offensive, outrageous and just plain weird. Think Herman Cain's infamous "Smoking Man" spot, which became a national curio, or the recent "Yellow Shirt Girl" spot from Michigan Senate candidate Pete Hokestra, which managed to create much post-Super Bowl, non-Clint Eastwood-related campaign ad wailing and gnashing of teeth.

The point of these ads, I think, is not simply to grab attention and get across a message. (In Cain's case: I'm different and unconventional). Nor is it primarily to tear down a rival. (In Hokestra's case: if you're afraid of the national debt and Chinese workers taking your jobs, blame my opponent). The point is to do all of those thing while inviting attacks -- to actually court ridicule, incredulity and scorn -- and then use political jujitsu and the politics of resentment to flip those attacks to your advantage.

In other words, the point is to Troll the other side.

Anyone who has spent any time on the Internet knows how Trolling works: you say or post something deliberately provocative, then sit back and laugh when everyone else overreacts and loses their minds. A Troll isn't looking to convince or persuade you; a Troll wants to push your buttons, tick you off and in the process gain strength by exerting a small measure of control. Trolling is goading. It's emotional terrorism. It's what Sarah Palin does so well, and Keith Olbermann simply can't resist. It's like schoolyard taunting mixed with Obi-Wan Kenobi at the end of "Star Wars": strike a Troll down, and he only becomes more powerful. An offensive ad is a Troll's bait.

Don't take my word on this. Ask Ladd Ehlinger. Ehlinger is a conservative filmmaker behind some of the strangest, most juvenile and over-the-top political ads of the last two years -- from Dale Peterson for Alabama Agricultural Commissioner (think "Smoking Man" with a shotgun instead of a cigarette) to an attack ad/rap video parody directed at California Congressional candidate Janice Hahn that simultaneously manages to be the most sexist and racist spot in recent memory (and sticks a symbolic tongue out at McCain-Feingold, just because). Then there's Ehlinger's most recent spot, "Turn This Ship Around," linked above, which I describe in the Washington Times as such:
The most outlandish political advertisement in recent memory goes something like this: The U.S.S. Constitution floats down a river, heading toward a waterfall’s edge. President Obama grips the ship’s steering wheel as passengers toast bank bailouts and “free health care for life.” Below decks, cute-but-despondent child slaves pull oars. A man in a Guy Fawkes mask cradles a pot of cash. A woman in a bathtub mentions a “stimulated” solar company. Also, the disembodied head of former Rep. Alan Grayson, Florida Democrat, appears superimposed on the body of a parrot.

Officially a pitch for Mark Oxner, a Republican congressional candidate in Florida’s new 27th District, the online spot ostensibly serves as a 39-second visual metaphor for the shortcomings of the Obama administration and the dangers of the national debt. Mixing computer graphics and live actors, it resembles either a big-budget video game or a shoestring Hollywood film — starring a chimerical parrot.

The spot is being used by multiple Congressional candidates; if it seems designed to get passed around the Web while inviting ridicule from Obama supporters, that's because it is. Ehlinger calls it his "briar patch" strategy - get the other political team to attack a candidate, then watch sympathetic partisans rally to your defense (largely by stepping up campaign contributions).

I don't think this strategy is tasteful. It does nothing to elevate civic discourse in our republic. It's rude and obnoxious and below-the-belt -- constantly crossing the line between laugh-worthy and cringe-worthy, depending on the audience -- and revels in the fact. Yet all of that, I think, is a smart play. At least from a bottom-line perspective. Ehlinger's strategy shows an understanding of how human psychology and non-Facebook Internet culture works.

Attack ads are never going away - they're far too effective, as illustrated by both the Mitt Romney campaign's squashing of Newt Gingrich and a wonderful New Yorker piece on the man who created the Willie Horton spot (who, coincidentally, is wink-wink indirectly working for Romney this election cycle via SuperPAC). Moreover, get-my-fainting-couch, this-wanton-aggression-cannot-stand appeals in which politicians bemoan the awful, terrible, no-goodnik tactics of their dirty, underhanded political opponents in order to raise money from supporters aren't exactly new. What is relatively fresh, however, is the Ehlinger approach - combining the two in a cost-effective, forward-thinking way. And that's why I expect to see a whole lot more political ad Trolling in the future. Like it or not.

(And if you do like it, it's probably an ineffective ad).