I was 12 years old when I watched Lyndon Johnson’s campaign ad that showed a little girl picking daisies followed by the mushroom cloud of a nuclear blast. Even at the time, I understood the message: Don’t vote for that extremist Barry Goldwater! He will start a nuclear war!
Yes, the ad, if you thought about it was utterably lame (a little girl? daisies?), but it had to have contributed to LBJ’s landslide victory. Drew Babb analyzes the political commercial, which aired as a paid advertisement one time only on September 7, 1964 (after that, it was endlessly re-run by the three networks who covered the ad itself as a piece of news). He calls it the “mother of all attack ads.”
Here is the text of the ad, from the commentary linked below:
LITTLE GIRL (plucking daisy petals): One, two, three, four, five, seven, six, six, eight, nine . . .
“MISSION CONTROL”: Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one, zero . . .
SOUND EFFECTS: Huge atomic bomb blast.
PRESIDENT JOHNSON: 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.
ANNOUNCER: Vote for President Johnson on Nov. 3. The stakes are too high for you to stay home.
You can love “Daisy” for its power or hate it for its excess — I both love it and hate it — but it changed political advertising forever. Here’s how:
●It gave politicians a license to kill. Earlier political commercials were overwhelmingly upbeat. In 1960, Frank Sinatra sang a rewrite of “High Hopes” for John F. Kennedy, with this jolly lyric: “Everyone is voting for Jack, ’cause he’s got what all the rest lack.”
But “Daisy” was a full-throated, gloves-off, take-no-prisoners negative message. Arguably, and for better or worse, it’s the Mother of All Attack Ads.
To execute the spot, the creative types didn’t just run still photos with a crawl of type. They used every weapon in their arsenal. They grabbed for viewers’ hearts with an adorable little girl (commercial actress Monique Corzilius). They tapped into viewers’ greatest nightmare with footage of a huge mushroom-shaped cloud. (Remember, this was less than two years after the Cuban missile crisis.) They reinforced the visuals with intrusive sound effects (provided by the genius sound engineer Tony Schwartz). They had Johnson read a snippet of spiritual poetry (by W.H. Auden). And they hired a voice-of-God baritone (sports announcer Chris Schenkel) to wrap things up.