‘Daisy’ at 50: The Most Vicious, and Most Effective, Politcal Ad in History

Time magazine described the “Daisy” ad, which aired only once 50 years ago today, as “the most infamous, and most effective” political ad ever. A little girl appears on the screen, stoops, and picks a daisy. As she starts pulling the petals off the flower, she counts, “One, two, three…” Her little-girl voice fades away as an ominous male voice counts down from 10:

It’s a minute long and appeared during Monday Night at the Movies on NBC. This is what happens next, as TIME described it: The countdown ends, and the screen erupts in atomic explosion, followed by the voice of Lyndon Baines Johnson, who says somberly: “These are the stakes: to make a world in which all of God’s children can live, or go into the dark. We must either love each other or we must die.”

Context is all, and here’s the political context in which that ad appeared:

The commercial, an election-season spot for incumbent president LBJ, was never meant to run repeatedly, but it was followed later in the month by a similar commercial featuring another little girl, this time with an ice cream cone, accompanied by an ominous voiceover about radioactive chemicals introduced to the environment by nuclear tests. Still, the spots provoked immediate controversy — and contributed to TIME’s decision to dub the Sept. 25, 1964, issue “The Nuclear Issue.” (The daisy girl appears on the cover.) Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater, TIME said then, was dogged by an “itchy-finger image.” After speaking in favor of making it easier for the nation’s armed forces to use nuclear weapons if needed, Goldwater became synonymous with the threat of full-on nuclear destruction. As one registered Republican from Vermont told a reporter, “I don’t think too much of President Johnson, but I guess I’m really afraid of Senator Goldwater.”

In case you’ve been sleeping under a rock for 50 years, here’s the ad:

The ad was a punch in the groin to Goldwater. Republicans immediately cried “foul” and went off on the network for running it. Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen of Illinois wrote the National Association of Broadcasters, fuming that the ad was “unfit for children to see, and takes the level of political campaigning to a depth never before approached in the history of television.” Republican House leader Charles Halleck said “decent people resent this kind of play on emotions, this appeal to fear, this scare campaign that outdoes a horror movie.”

Ad Age reports that it didn’t matter that the ad ran only once.

It didn’t run again, partly due to the outcry, mostly because it didn’t need to run again. According to atomic-age-obsessed CONELRAD, which has an extensive, must-read three-part history of the ad (complete with supporting documents and an interview with Daisy herself and a video clip of the DDB team), “Daisy” was also a pioneer in what we now call “earned media.”

The spot may not have been re-broadcast as a paid ad, but it was run during nightly news segments. CONELRAD quotes a memo from the Johnson campaign’s Bill Moyers (yes, that Bill Moyers) to the president, that reads in part:

“While we paid for the ad only on NBC last Monday night, ABC and CBS ran it on their news shows Friday. So we got it shown on all three networks for the price of one.”

The cost to run that ad? According to CONELRAD, $24,000.

According to a Nov. 23 Ad Age article citing a Walter Pincus story in the Washington Star, the Democrats were billed for $4 million worth of advertising (including media) for that election, compared to the Republican’s $4.6 million.

And the Democrats thought the Willie Horton ad low? At least the Horton ad, run by the George H.W. Bush campaign against Michael Dukakis in 1988, was based on fact, as you’ll see later on.

Democrats accused Republicans in typical fashion: the ad was a “dog whistle” because Horton was black. If Horton were white, the Democrats would have found some other way to hit back because the ad was that effective.

The Horton ad was not as effective as the Daisy ad because it didn’t cost Dukakais the election. Dukakis did that himself when during a debate with Bush, he shocked the nationwide audience with his emotionless response to a question about the death penalty for someone who had raped and murdered his wife:

Bernard Shaw asks Michael Dukakis a provocative question in the second 1988 presidential debate: “If Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?”

“No, I don’t, Bernard, and I think you know that I’ve opposed the death penalty during all of my life. I don’t see any evidence that it’s a deterrent and I think there are better and more effective ways to deal with violent crime.”

The Daisy ad was the brainchild of Bill Bernbach, who headed up a Democratic ad agency. Bernbach wrote a letter to Johnson laying out his case for the smear:

“We are ardent Democrats who are deadly afraid of Goldwater and feel that the world must be handed a Johnson landslide. To play our small part in the achievement of such a victory we risked the possible resentment of some of our giant Republican clients (I personally told one it was none of his business when he phoned me about our action) and we had to turn away companies who wanted to give us their accounts on a long term basis.”

Bernbach went on to note that the President couldn’t rest on his position alone and that media exposure wasn’t enough, stating that “exposure on TV or radio or a quote in the nation’s press is not necessarily a call to action.”

Sounding like an evangelist for the medium, Bernbach added: “There is no denying the influence television had on the last election; and in 1964 there are 8,550,000 more television sets in use in this country than there were in 1960.”

For all his talents, Bernbach likely could not have seen the long-term implications of the ad. He defended it at the time, from the position of someone who believed that nuclear holocaust was really at stake in the election, and years later defended the shop’s participation, saying that it was done on principal and that for no amount of money would they have worked for the other side.

There have been effective ads that were uplifting — Reagan’s “Morning in America” ad comes to mind. But it is the political attack ad that stirs emotions and gets people angry, or fearful. Those are the emotions that move people to the polls to vote. Although we probably won’t see the likes of “Daisy” again, you can be sure that admen and campaigns will push the limits of fairness and good taste to score against their political opponents in the future.

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