by Christopher Murphy*
Brisbane, September 7, 2014 (Alochonaa): Today marks the 50th anniversary of what is known as most iconic political advertisement of all time, that it’s influence is clearly evident today. 1964 was the year that the negative political advertisement was born, initiating the clever use of image and sound to paint an opponent in quite negative and scary terms. The 30 second spot was to become known as ‘The Daisy Ad’ remarkably only aired once during NBC’s Monday Night at the Movies. The ad shown in black and white begins with a little girl in a field as she starts to pick the petals from a daisy. She beings to count to 10 somewhat erratically (1,2,3,4,5,7,6,6,8,9,9) until she begins repeating the number ‘9’. Immediately following the little girl’s voice comes a man’s voice, used for rocket launches at Cape Canaveral and enhanced by an echo chamber commences a count-down as the girl looks up to the horizon. The camera zooms in once the picture freezes with each step in the countdown until ‘zero’. The screen is filled black with the pupil of her eye. Silence then an almighty roar from the explosion of an atomic blast. Then a voice over by President Lyndon Johnson begins in an amplified tone:
‘These are the stakes: to make a world in which all of God’s children can live, or to go into the dark. We must either love each other, or we must die’.
However it’s the campaign tagline ‘vote for President Johnson on November3rd, the stakes are too high for you to stay at home,’ had the most impact. The ad implied Republican candidate Barry Goldwater who advocated the use of ‘tactical’ nuclear weapons in Vietnam was reckless and held extremist views whilst President Johnson was a careful moderate man. During his speech after winning the Republican nomination Goldwater infamously said “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” Goldwater’s defense of extremism backfired under severe and immediate criticism from the media, moderate Republicans, and the Democrats. Americans did not like extremism in any guise and Goldwater’s words continued to haunt him throughout the campaign.
University of Illinois Scott Jacob’s points out except for the final frame, there is no explicit argumentative content in the ad and no new information contained within. Goldwater is not even mentioned or any reference to anything he had said. It was considered at the time to be an unusual way to start a presidential campaign. Johnson’s team started going hard negative on Goldwater, but he needed a mandate, and he wanted to go after Goldwater’s vulnerability. Louisiana State University communications professor Robert Mann points out ‘The ad was the first of its kind, before campaigns and politicians in general didn’t advertise themselves using creative advertising principals. They basically used abbreviated versions of their campaign speeches.’
The spot intertwines Cold War fears of nuclear annihilation with the increasingly opportunistic and savvy world of media and advertising. The ad was successful in its simplicity in framing the debate on the potential for nuclear war and the audience knew electing Barry Goldwater as the next President would cause nuclear Armageddon. At the time former White House Press Secretary Bill Moyers indicated in a memo ‘the idea (for the ad) was not to let (Goldwater) get away with building a moderate image and to put him on the defensive before the campaign is old.’
Daisy created a new genre of political communications that would appeal to the emotions of viewers, not just their intellect. It was seen by 50 millions people the night it aired, and likely another 50 million people when it was featured on newscasts the following week (roughly 80% of the voting public saw the ad).
‘Daisy’ is considered the most revolutionary political advertisement in the history of television. The ad was created by the innovative agency Doyle Dane Bernbach who at the time were known for their conceptual, minimal, and modern approach to advertising. Advertising in general is designed to induce the audience in a certain way, ‘to see it, to feel it’ and to respond. LSU Professor Robert Mann in his book ‘Daisy Petals and Mushroom Clouds and the Ad That Changed American Politics’ mentions how Johnson’s campaign successfully casts Goldwater as a radical too dangerous to control the nation’s nuclear arsenal, a depiction that sparked condemnation across the country. As one critic of the ad noted ‘when smear begins, sensible, meaningful debate on the real issue stops’. The ad was so successful that it helped signal the beginning of a new age of political propaganda. It was the first major use of the ‘harsh attack’ designed to manipulate people’s emotions and play on their fears.
During the campaign Dean Burch (Republican National Committee Chairman) filed a complaint with the watchdog saying ‘this horror-type commercial is designed to arouse basic emotions and has no place in campaign.’ Burch continued to call the ad ‘violent political lie’ that was an ‘unfair appeal to the basic emotion of the survival instinct’. Time Magazine called it ‘vicious’. The complaints must have worked as the Johnson campaign team quickly withdrew the ad from the airwaves, though not from the press or the public imagination. Ironically Goldwater aide, Charles Lichenstein noted ‘we gave the ad so much publicity that it was shown over and over the news and commentary programs so a lot of people saw it who wouldn’t have ordinarily seen it.
Republican Advertising in Response: ‘In Your Heart You Know He’s Right’
Goldwater’s advertising was considered old fashion and similar to those utilised by former President Dwight Eisenhower’s talking heads style ‘Answers America’. The ad’s showed the fundamental flaw in Goldwater’s campaign as almost always on the defensive, constantly explaining his previous controversial statements or responding to accusations made against him whilst incidentally keeping those charges in the public consciousness. Any charges against Johnson and his campaign seemed trivial in comparison to Goldwater being perceived as a war-monger. Goldwater campaign commissioned its own inflammatory ad, ‘We Will Bury You’ involved a scene of young American school students saying the Pledge of Allegiance juxtaposed with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev making his famous threatening United Nations speech where he invoked the phrase. Even Goldwater’s slogan backfired with ‘In Your Heart You Know He Might’, ‘In Your Head You Know He’s Wrong’ and ‘In Your Guts You Know He’s Nuts’
The election was a crushing victory for Johnson winning 64.9 percent of the popular vote, one of the largest winning percentages ever recorded. Fast forward to 2011, the little ‘Daisy’ girl Monique Luiz spoke to the New York Times and said she held few regrets about her role in the commercial: ‘only the last few years had I realised the importance of this iconic ad.’
*Christopher Murphy is a final year law and politics student at Griffith Univeristy in Brisbane, Australia. He has a keen interest in American politics, political advertising, propaganda and sport. He insists that pro-wrestling is a real sport and will happily suplex anyone who disagrees with him.
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