DDB’s Myers recalled matters quite differently. He maintained that it was his idea to slowly zoom into the girl’s eye, insisting that he copied the technique from French filmmaker Francois Truffant’s iconic 1959 movie, “The 400 Blows.” Interviewed in 2010, Myers gave Schwartz a bit more credit for the spot.
“He certainly had a lot to do with it because he did the soundtrack and that’s where we got the concept from, the idea,” Myers said. “But he did not do any of the residual work; he did not come up with the idea to use it as a commercial for Johnson.”
Myers did acknowledge that the idea for the Daisy Girl spot came after the visit to Schwartz’s home. That, coupled with the striking similarity of the U.N. spot to the Daisy Girl spot, lends credence to Schwartz’s contention that he was instrumental in the spot’s conception.
At the very least, Schwartz appears to deserve a bit more credit for the spot than Myers and other DDB executives were willing to give him. One additional bit of circumstantial evidence in Schwartz’s favor is that DDB executives did not begin publicly challenging Schwartz’s recollection of his role in producing the spot until the early 1990’s—and then did so with a vengeance.
Nonetheless, Schwartz’s contributions to the concept of the spot, especially its soundtrack, seem clear.
“The visual component, however, is another story,” concluded cultural historian Bill Geerhart. “The conceptualist for the brilliant scenario of the innocent child in the field of daisies is either Tony Schwartz or it is the DDB team (Sid Myers and Stanley Lee). With both sides claiming credit and neither possessing any conclusive evidence, this is a dispute unlikely to ever be resolved.”
However it was created, and whoever was responsible, the White House approved the spot, along with several others, in early August and DDB scheduled it for filming shortly thereafter. DDB scheduled the spot to air the day that Johnson would formally inaugurate his fall campaign—Monday September 7, 1964. That day, in Detroit before a crowd of 100,000 in Cadillac Square, Johnson tore into Goldwater’s views about the acceptability of using “conventional” nuclear weapons, thereby setting the stage for the very unconventional campaign weapons he would deploy on national television that evening.
That night, NBC broadcast the 1951 film “David and Bathsheba,” starring Gregory Peck and Susan Hayward. Sometime around 9:50 p.m. Eastern time, the Daisy Girl spot aired. By one estimate, as many as 50 million viewers saw the spot.
At the White House, the response was immediate. According to Moyers, the White House switchboard lit up with calls of protest. Johnson, too, had been getting calls from friends concerned that the spot had gone too far. The critics included several guests who were at the White House for a small, late-evening dinner. Johnson interrupted the meal to phone Moyers, who was still in his West Wing office. Despite the ostensible urgency of the call, Moyers sensed immediately that Johnson “was having a wonderful time putting on an act” for the benefit of his dinner guests.
“What the hell do you mean putting on that ad that just ran?” Johnson asked. “I’ve been swamped with calls and the Goldwater people are calling it a low blow.” Moyers recalled that Johnson’s “voice was chuckling all the time.”
Summoned to the White House’s second-floor living quarters for further discussion, Moyers recalled that he arrived around 10 p.m. to find Johnson and his friends still at dinner. “Don’t you think that was pretty tough?” Johnson asked, for the benefit of his guests.
“Mr. President,” Moyers replied, “we were just reminding people that at this time it might be a good idea to have an experienced hand on the button.”
Moyers said he assured Johnson the ad would not run again. As he began to leave, Moyers said that Johnson followed him toward the elevator.
“You sure we ought to run it just once?” Johnson asked. Moyers said that he assured him once was enough.
The fundamental conservative shift in American politics that began in 1964 would not become apparent until the late 1970s. More immediate, however, was that election’s profound impact on the way candidates, especially those running for the White House, used television spot advertising to influence voters. Examine any of the television spots created for presidential candidates in 1952, 1956, or 1960. Then, look at Barry Goldwater’s spots from 1964. Goldwater’s spots appear frozen in time.
Stylistically, there is little difference between the 1964 Goldwater spots and those produced more than a decade earlier. While Goldwater’s campaign plowed almost 40 percent of its budget into television advertising—and by one estimate, outspent Johnson on television by 40 percent—the Republican’s commercials were mostly documentary films, speeches, and lengthy interviews. The candidate’s advisers had rejected the counsel of their advertising agency—Erwin, Wasey, Ruthrauff, and Ryan—to employ shorter spot advertising.
The Johnson campaign, however, was the exception. The contrast between Johnson’s spots in 1964 and John F. Kennedy’s in 1960 is remarkable. In style, the difference is more like a decade removed, not just four years. It was the creative executives at DDB in 1964 who helped show 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 DDB spots were a hinge in presidential campaign history. The Daisy Girl spot’s skillful manipulation of the fears residing in American viewers showed a 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. Daisy Girl and the other spots produced for Johnson qualify as the first television spots of the modern political era—an era in which presidential candidates increasingly and effectively used emotion, not reason, to win elections.
Robert Mann is the author of “Daisy Petals and Mushroom Clouds: LBJ, Barry Goldwater, and the Ad that Changed American Politics.” He holds the Manship Chair in journalism at the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University and has worked for former Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco and former U.S. Senators John Breaux and Russell Long.