It was the summer of 1964 and President Lyndon Johnson was worried about his reelection. Actually, he was worried about the prospect that he might not earn a historic landslide victory.
A Gallup poll released on July 10 that showed him with the support of 77 percent of voters, to Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater’s 18 percent, did little to assuage his anxiety.
“I hate to tell you this,” a sullen Johnson told his press secretary, George Reedy, on July 20, “but it’s my considered judgment, in the light of what I see happening and what I have heard . . . that we wouldn’t carry a state in the South if the vote were tomorrow.”
Aide Bill Moyers recalled that Johnson “could be a nervous Nellie on this; he had been dubbed Landslide Lyndon, you’ll recall, and he never took a campaign for granted.”
Gallup’s new numbers would not be released until late July, but they would give Johnson even more reason for concern. Data gathered by the polling firm during July 7–10 showed the race “narrowing.” Goldwater, who now polled at 26 percent, had cut Johnson’s numbers down from their stratospheric high of 77 to a more plausible 62 percent.
Johnson wasn’t the only one nervous about the election. Some supporters, observing the fervor of Goldwater’s backers in California and other places, began to wonder if they were witnessing the high-water mark of the Arizonan’s candidacy or the beginning of a tidal wave.
“I’m afraid Democrats don’t realize that unless President Johnson fights a tough, no-holds-barred campaign, he’s going to lose the election,” California advertising executive Norman Maher wrote Johnson aide Jack Valenti on July 20, the same day that Johnson confessed to Reedy his worries about losing the South.
In his nine-page letter, Maher volunteered his ideas for a strong attack on Goldwater’s extremist positions and rhetoric. Among his proposals was an idea to exploit Goldwater’s troubling rhetoric on nuclear weapons.
“Show a nuclear bomb blast,” Maher advised. “Then ask, ‘Do you want anyone other than the President of the U.S. to have control over our nuclear weapons?’”
It is not clear what, if any, reply Maher’s letter prompted, but he was likely channeling the fretfulness of Johnson and some of his aides.
Talk of going at Goldwater by suggesting he was an unstable man who, if elected, would start a nuclear war was not confined to unsolicited counsel in letters from outside advisers. In his July 20 phone conversation with Johnson, Reedy broached the issue of Goldwater’s temperament.
“Now, I think there’s a weakness to Goldwater,” Reedy said. “I think the big weakness is people think he’s pretty reckless. And I think the one thing we oughta get at now is some of the things he’s said about the nuclear test ban treaty, but not say it in the way they’ve been said. I think we’ve gotta get this down to some gut things.”
Johnson continued listening, without comment.
“Mothers that are worried about having radioactive poison in their kids’ milk. Men that are worried about becoming sterile. Uh, give ’em some thoughts about maybe kids being born with two heads and things like that.”
For months, with the White House’s blessing (but with little consultation or direction from Johnson or his aides), executives of the New York advertising firm Doyle Dane Bernbach (DDB) had been preparing an aggressive fall television campaign for Johnson. By late July, after some acrimonious debate between DDB and officials at the Democratic National Committee, the outlines of the fall campaign, and its specific messages, took shape.
“We had instructed [DDB] that Goldwater’s casual approach to the use of nuclear weapons,” Johnson aide Richard Goodwin recalled, “together with the militance of his Cold War rhetoric, was to be a major theme of our television campaign since it undermined public confidence in that ‘wise restraint’ which was the most important quality expected of a president in the Atomic Age.”
Johnson and his aides also began approving specific concepts for spots and began setting the course for what Johnson’s campaign would say about Johnson and Goldwater in its early television advertising.
“We worked day and night,” DDB’s Sidney Myers recalled. “We were traveling back and forth to Washington on the train, staying at the White House, having brainstorming sessions.”
On August 31, Moyers finally received Johnson’s permission to pull the trigger on the television campaign. Once he decided to proceed, Johnson went all out. Johnson approved $2 million in TV spots, with an additional $2.5 million in local television advertising and $500,000 for radio. DDB was ready for battle.
The first spot envisioned by the ad firm was only sixty seconds long and was named simply “Peace, Little Girl.” The original DDB script for this spot does not appear to be among the papers of the DNC on file at the Lyndon B. Johnson Library, but in its ultimate form it was very simple.
DDB envisioned an innocent little girl in a sun-splashed field, with the sound of birds chirping in the background. In her hands, the little girl held a daisy. In her own voice, she would be counting as she plucked the petals, “One . . . two . . . three . . . four . . . five . . . seven . . . six . . . six . . . eight . . . nine . . . nine.” At the end of her count, the girl would look up, somewhat startled, as if she had heard a distant sound. The camera would freeze on the girl’s face and move into an extreme close-up of her eye, as another voice abruptly entered the spot.
As if being broadcast from a loudspeaker at a missile test site, this man would begin counting down in an urgent tone: “Ten . . . nine . . . eight . . . seven . . . six . . . five . . . four . . . three . . . two . . . one.”
At that point, the camera would quickly zero in on the girl’s dark eye, which would fill the screen, now replaced with the sound and visual fury of a sudden atomic bomb explosion.
As the fiery mushroom cloud consumed the screen, Johnson’s voice would enter the spot: “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.”
While it is not likely the idea for the Daisy Girl spot originated in the White House, it is apparent that Johnson and his aides, during the late spring and summer of 1964, grew increasingly open to the idea of a devastating attack on Goldwater for his statements and positions regarding nuclear war.
Creating a spot to graphically and effectively communicate Johnson’s view of Goldwater’s recklessness was on the minds of DDB copywriters and art directors in the summer when they contacted a well-regarded, reclusive New York sound man to consult with them on about a half-dozen television spots.
Tony Schwartz was a forty-year-old Manhattan-born artist and ad man whose long-held fascination with sound had earned him a reputation as a wizard of sound and sound effects. Famously agoraphobic, Schwartz rarely left his Hell’s Kitchen home alone. Those who desired his services came to him. Hundreds of corporate and political clients made the trek to see Schwartz, not just because of his groundbreaking work with sound, but because of his belief in using emotions rather than rational appeals to persuade. Schwartz was also the first advertising man to use real children’s voices in his ads, a distinction that undoubtedly attracted the attention of DDB executives as they conceived the “Peace Little Girl” spot.
Sometime in the summer of 1964, DDB executives contacted Schwartz. “They had an approach for a five-minute spot on the nuclear war issue,” Schwartz later recalled, “with voices counting down in English and Russian; they wanted to know what to do for a sixty-second version.”
Schwartz, who was fascinated with the sound of numbers, had produced radio and TV spots that featured countdowns. In 1962, Schwartz produced a nuclear disarmament PSA for the United Nations in which a child (his nephew) counted out a series of numbers, followed by an adult who counted down, NASA-style, before the sound of an atomic blast.
When the DDB team visited Schwartz’s home, he played them the raw tape of his nephew counting. “We heard it and it was so striking and then we said, ‘Wow, wouldn’t that be great,’” Myers later recalled.
What happened next is a point of contention between Schwartz and DDB that continued until Schwartz’s death in June 2008. Schwartz always maintained that he conceived the spot and was the driving force behind its production. In a letter to the New York Times in 2000, Schwartz described himself as “the creator of the original ‘Daisy’ advertisement in 1964” and, in defending the spot, referred to “my own ad.”
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.