LBJ’s Mad Men and the Ad that Changed American Politics

Daisy Girl 2

By Robert Mann

Fifty years ago – on the night of Monday, Sept. 7, 1964 – an innocent little girl plucking flower petals in a sun-splashed field helped usher in a revolution in American political advertising. The 60-second television spot that featured her disjointed counting exploded, literally and figuratively, all notions of what it meant to effectively persuade voters with paid political advertising.

The little girl counted as she plucked flower petals. Unseen birds chirped happily. As her counting ended, viewers suddenly heard a mission control announcer begin a countdown. As he neared zero, the girl’s image froze as the camera zoomed into her right eye until her pupil filled the screen and was replaced by a nuclear blast and mushroom cloud. As the apocalyptic scene unfolded, President Lyndon Johnson’s reedy drawl entered the spot, ending with the admonition, “we must either love each other or we must die.”

The so-called “Daisy Girl” spot created by Johnson’s New York advertising firm aired only once as a paid commercial during the 1964 presidential campaign. An estimated 50 million voters saw it during NBC’s “Monday Night at the Movies” – the film was “David and Bathsheba.” Another 50 million or more saw it again, or for the first time, later that week when the three television networks aired the unique, powerful spot in their newscasts.

The spot, created by the ad firm Doyle Dane Bernbach (DDB), was actually called “Peace, Little Girl,” but its message was anything but peaceful. It was a fierce assault on Johnson’s Republican opponent, Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona. It was as clever and creative as any attack ad ever produced in American politics. Its images were arresting and unexpected and its message – Johnson was a man of peace, Goldwater would destroy the world – was abundantly clear.

Without showing his image or even speaking his name, DDB masterfully evoked the widespread fears about a potential Goldwater presidency. The Republican candidate’s remarkable absence was the essence of its brilliance, and the reason it and the other DDB spots that followed transformed political advertising: These spots had such a powerful impact not for what they said, but what did not require words at all.

For years, Goldwater had spoken recklessly about nuclear war and nuclear weaponry. He had opposed the 1963 Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. He had called the nuclear bomb “merely another weapon” in America’s arsenal. When President John F. Kennedy had declared America’s intent to send men to the moon, Goldwater responded, “I don’t want to hit the moon. I want to lob one [presumably a nuclear missile] into the men’s room of the Kremlin and make sure I hit it.” He favored giving NATO commanders in Western Europe authority to use tactical nuclear weapons without White House approval.

Most famously, the Arizona senator had accepted his party’s nomination in San Francisco that July, where he declared, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” Technically, he might have been correct about relentlessly defending freedom, but his unfortunate words gave Johnson and his team further ammunition – and license – to brand their opponent a warmonger.

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One Response to LBJ’s Mad Men and the Ad that Changed American Politics

  1. lasunshinebr says:

    LBJ knew it all along. That is why he stepped down predicting the downfall of our Party, which HE divided and apologized for.


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