Happy 50th anniversary to the TV ad that changed politics

     This image made from video made available by the Democratic National Committee via the LBJ Library shows a girl plucking petals from a flower in a 1964 presidential campaign television commercial titled

    This image made from video made available by the Democratic National Committee via the LBJ Library shows a girl plucking petals from a flower in a 1964 presidential campaign television commercial titled "Peace, Little Girl" and known as the "Daisy Spot" made by the DNC for Lyndon B. Johnson in his race against former Sen. Barry Goldwater. (AP Photo/Democratic National Committee)

    Happy anniversary, Daisy girl! What would our politics be like today if she hadn’t burst upon the scene 50 years ago – a freckled tyke blown up in a nuclear blast, the star of America’s first gut-punch TV ad?

    Maybe our politics would be cleaner, but who knows. If the “Daisy ad” hadn’t smeared Barry Goldwater as a warmongering madman, the odds are that, sooner rather than later, some other attack on some other pol would’ve opened the floodgates. Back in the Mad Men era, savvy politicians already knew that Madison Avenue was brilliantly adept at getting inside our heads, at exploiting our hopes and fears, and it just so happened that Lyndon Johnson got there first.

    So let’s look back at the Daisy ad – which debuted half a century ago, on Sept. 7, 1964 – because it says so much about where we are today. For better or worse (OK, worse).

    That night, NBC aired an old film, David and Bathsheba. There were frequent breaks for commercials, one of which was so unique that, metaphorically speaking, it blew people away. Sixty seconds in length, it featured three-year-old Monique Corzilius of Pine Beach, New Jersey. Monique was an advertising veteran, having popped up in magazine ads for ’60s staples like Hostess and Velveeta. But this time, the cutting-edge Doyle Dane Bernbach ad firm, working for the LBJ White House, enlisted her (with her parents’ OK, for a fee of $100) to put the zap on LBJ’s ’64 opponent.

    • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

    Goldwater, the hawkish conservative who had snagged the GOP presidential nomination, was already known for saying crazy stuff off the cuff. He had joked publicly about lobbing a nuke into “the men’s room” at the Kremlin. He had suggested that American military leaders should have the option of using “tactical” nukes in Vietnam, and that NATO field commanders should be free to use nukes in Europe without explicit permission from the White House. The Cold War was hot in those days – we were just two years removed from the Cuban Missile Crisis – and Goldwater’s remarks made a lot of people nervous.

    Enter Monique, forever to be known as the Daisy girl.

    She was coached to pluck some daisy petals, and count to 10 as she did so. Then came the stentorian voiceover, counting down to a nuclear launch. Then came the tight freeze frame on the innocent tot’s eye…and an Armageddon cloud, as LBJ’s voice (quoting W. H. Auden) intoned, “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.” Then came the deep-timbered voice of sports announcer Chris Schenkel: “Vote for President Johnson on Nov. 3. The stakes are too high for you to stay home.”

    The ad never mentioned Goldwater. It didn’t have to. It merely tapped into existing fears. As one of the key ad men, Tony Schwartz, told me many years later, “We used imagery that connected with what the public was already sensing…We’re packaging the voter. We’re tying him up and delivering him to the ballot box.”

    And the paid ad ran only once. LBJ’s team didn’t have to pay another dime. The Goldwater people were furious, and their vocal complaints drove the news cycle for days on end; to cover the story, the networks were compelled to air the ad over and over, “free media,” in today’s parlance. Many commentators felt that the ad had “crossed the line,” and many political strategists were shocked, because they’d come to believe that going negative would inevitably hurt the candidate who did it.

    How quaint this all sounds today. Daisy plowed the ground for ’68, when Richard Nixon ran ads that sought to link Democratic opponent Hubert Humphrey to inner-city rioting; and for ’88, when George Bush’s allies ran ads suggesting that Michael Dukakis was soft on black rapists.

    And today we barely blink when negative ads roll by, even when they’re grounded in lies. Two random ’12 examples: An Obama-allied super PAC ad blamed Mitt Romney for the death of a steelworker’s wife, because Bain Capital had closed the plant where the steelworker had health coverage. (Turned out, the steelworker had lost his plant job years before his wife got sick.) Meanwhile, Romney said in an ad that Obama had killed the federal work requirement for welfare recipients. (Turned out, Obama had killed nothing. He had given the states more flexibility on how they’d meet the work requirement.)

    As for Monique, now 53 and living in Arizona, she’s a bit weirded out by her place in history, and how she (unwittingly) lowered the bar for campaign discourse. She tells a reporter, “It’s frustrating, and they say this ad helped contribute to that a lot. Oh, my gosh, I hate that. Not that I did it personally, but the ad that I was in contributed to it. So that’s kind of disappointing.”

    And as for Barry Goldwater, I talked to him about the Daisy ad in 1988, nearly a quarter century after it aired. He was still ticked off – but at one point he said, “I did think the ad was pretty damn clever.”

    Indeed it was, in a bludgeoning sort of way. Attack ads are often quite artistically clever, and they often work. Such were the lessons of ’64, which is why, alas, we’ve been plagued by Daisy’s ilk ever since.


    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1, and on Facebook.



    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal