Daisy Girl: The TV spot that changed American politics

Forty-eight years ago tonight — September 7, 1964 — an innocent little girl transformed political advertising in a sixty-second television spot that exploded, literally and figuratively, the way that American politicians sold themselves to the public.

Sept. 7 was the first day of the General Election campaign between incumbent President Lyndon Johnson and his Republican challenger, Barry Goldwater. In Detroit, Johnson had kicked off the race with a desultory speech before a crowd of 100,000.

English: President Lyndon B. Johnson at the 19...

President Lyndon B. Johnson at the 1964 presidential election night with reporters. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Johnson tried to rouse the gathering with an attack on Goldwater’s bellicose views on using nuclear weapons. For years, Goldwater had spoken recklessly about nuclear war, once joking about lobbing a nuclear missile at the Kremlin and, more seriously, about using nuclear bombs to defoliate Vietnam’s jungles. And, then at the GOP convention, he famously declared, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” But Johnson’s abstract attacks failed to rouse his audience.

Fortunately for the president, he had another message later that day – and it would be anything but abstract.

In the spot, aired about 10:50 p.m. Eastern time — during NBC’s “Monday Night at the Movies” — an innocent little girl sat in a sun-splashed field. In her hands was a flower. She counted as she plucked its petals. When she reached nine, the girl looked up, as if hearing a distant sound.

The camera moved into an extreme close-up of her right eye, as a mission control voice entered the spot, counting down from ten. When the countdown ended, a nuclear explosion enveloped the screen.

As the mushroom cloud roiled, Johnson’s distinctive southern twang announced: “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.”

What would become known simply as the “Daisy Girl” spot, produced by the New York advertising firm of Doyle Dane Bernbach (DDB), was seen that night by an estimated 50 million stunned viewers.

It was never shown again as a paid commercial. That wouldn’t be necessary, as tens of millions more would see it later that week when the television networks featured it on their newscasts.

Goldwater’s outraged allies viewed the spot as a deadly attack. As Goldwater would later write, “There was no doubt as to the meaning: Barry Goldwater would blow up the world if he became President of the United States.”

There was only one problem with the outrage. The spot never showed Goldwater’s image, nor mentioned his name.

English: Photograph shows head-and-shoulders p...

Barry Goldwater. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It didn’t need to. Goldwater’s many reckless statements about nuclear war had indelibly branded him a dangerous extremist. DDB didn’t need to spell out what voters already knew. It merely employed the images of Goldwater already in voters’ minds to evoke fear of a nuclear holocaust.

In the following weeks, Johnson aired more spots that creatively cast Goldwater as a threat to world peace.

But these spots did not, as some believe, destroy Goldwater’s candidacy. In fact, the Republican nominee’s poll numbers did not appreciably decline during this barrage. It’s likely the vast majority of voters had already ruled out Goldwater and Johnson’s spots merely confirmed their decision.

More important, the Daisy Girl and other DDB spots transformed American political advertising.

Examine any of the television spots created for presidential candidates in 1952, 1956, or 1960. Then, view Barry Goldwater’s 1964 spots. (This is easily accomplished by visiting the website “The Living Room Candidate.”)

Goldwater’s spots from 1964 appear frozen in time. Stylistically, there was little difference between the Goldwater spots and those of a decade earlier.

However, the contrast between Johnson’s 1964 spots and John F. Kennedy’s from 1960 is remarkable. In style, the difference is more like a decade removed.

The Daisy Girl and the other DDB spots were the first spots to use creative advertising principles in a presidential campaign. They were the first in a political era in which presidential candidates increasingly and effectively used emotion, not reason, to win elections.

The Daisy Girl spot’s skillful manipulation of the fears residing in American viewers showed a new generation of political professionals that television advertising in campaigns was about far more than which candidate had the best facts; it was, instead, more about which candidate could give meaning to the facts — and fears — the voters already possessed.

The creative, groundbreaking minds at DDB showed politicians how to use television not simply to inform but to persuade. And not so much to persuade viewers but to give them an experience.

The spots were, quite simply, a hinge in presidential campaign history.

Candidates continue to copy the spot but never with the same degree of success. Candidates and independent groups aired versions of the spot in 1996, 2000, 2003, and 2010, each with limited impact after a brief spate of publicity.

The image of a mushroom cloud may have lost much of its ability to terrify voters. But the spirit of Daisy Girl — using the emotions already lurking in the hearts of voters and bringing them to the surface — lives on in increasingly sophisticated advertising campaigns.

Emotion — especially fear — as a tool of politicians and their advertising consultants, is here to stay.

If you want to learn more about this historic spot, you’re in luck. It’s the subject of my latest book: Daisy Petals and Mushroom Clouds: LBJ, Barry Goldwater and the Ad that Changed American Politics. You can also learn more at this wonderful website: http://conelrad.com/daisy/index.php.

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  1. Pingback: Goldwater and Romney each had a “47 percent” moment « Something Like the Truth

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