The Pop History Dig

“LBJ’s Atomic Ad”
1964 – “Daisy Girl”

'Daisy Girl' counting her petals in 1964.
'Daisy Girl' counting her petals in 1964.
      On September 7, 1964, television advertising history was made during the broadcast of NBC’s Monday Night at The Movies.  That’s when a new kind of TV ad was first aired that would forever change the art and practice of political advertising – and to a large degree, political campaigning as well. For 1964 was the year that the negative political ad was born, initiating the clever use of image and sound to paint an opponent in negative or scary terms. No less than a presidential election was at stake.

     The Democrats, with President Lyndon B. Johnson in the White House following the assassination of John F. Kennedy, were headed for an election-year battle with Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, a fierce and outspoken conservative.  The Democrats had hired a New York advertising firm to help them in their campaign.  Among the ad men enlisted was Tony Schwartz who believed that negative sentiment associated with a particular candidate could be more powerful in persuading voters than positive ones.

Photograph of an atomic blast, a version of which was also shown in the 'Daisy Girl' campaign ad.
Photograph of an atomic blast, a version of which was also shown in the 'Daisy Girl' campaign ad.
     On the campaign trial, Goldwater had advocated the use of “tactical” nuclear weapons in Vietnam, and Lyndon Johnson’s team went right after that, trying to paint Goldwater as dangerous.  One result was the infamous “Daisy Girl” TV ad, a one-minute spot featuring a little blond girl in an open field, appearing innocent and playful, plucking petals off a daisy, counting as she went, flubbing the sequence a bit, as young children do:  “One, two, three, four, five, seven, six, six, eight, nine, nine …,”she says, counting in a slow, sing-song fashion.  Immediately following the little girl’s voice comes a man’s voice, enhanced by an echo chamber.  The girl looks up from her de-petalled flower, as if hearing the distant voice, also counting — backwards:  “Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one, zero.”  The sound of a horrific explosion follows as the TV image changes sharply to the mushroom cloud of an atomic explosion, then an x-ray-like image of the daisy girl as the blast sound rolls out for an extended count of some long seconds.  Then comes the voice of Lyndon Johnson.  In his perfect Texas twang, pausing purposely for effect at the proper moments, Johnson offers this view:  “These are the stakes . . . To make a world in which all of God’s children can live . . . Or, to go into the darkness . . . We must either love each other, or we must die.”  The piece closes with an announcer voice-over:  “Vote for President Johnson on November 3rd.  The stakes are too high for you to stay home.”

 

Goldwater & Nuclear Weapons

     The implied message of the ad was crystal clear for anybody remotely following the election that year: Goldwater was not to be trusted with nuclear weapons, and if elected, he would surely unleash a nuclear showdown. In fact, the Republican National Committee noted in reply: “This ad implies that Senator Goldwater is a reckless man and Lyndon Johnson is a careful man.”  However, the ad created such a furor that it was withdrawn after being shown only once, during the NBC Movie that September 7th.  But all the controversy led to its being replayed many times more, in its entirety, including on network newscasts at ABC and CBS, commentary programs, and displayed in news magazines.  It also appeared as part of a montage of images on the cover of Time magazine’s September 24th, 1964 issue, featuring “The Nuclear Issue” as its cover story.

'Daisy Girl' TV clip shown on the lower portion of Time magazine's cover, September 25, 1964, in a featured story on 'The Nuclear Issue'.
'Daisy Girl' TV clip shown on the lower portion of Time magazine's cover, September 25, 1964, in a featured story on 'The Nuclear Issue'.
     “Daisy Girl” changed the politics of advertising from that moment on.  Goldwater’s campaign followed with its own scary ad, titled, “We Will Bury You,” using a scene of young American school students saying the Pledge of Allegiance juxtaposed with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev making his famous threatening United Nations speech in which he invoked that phrase.

     Presidential elections up until 1964 often used simple campaign songs, jingles, and images, as Kennedy and Eisenhower had done in the 1950s and in 1960, or used only rudimentary and fairly crude ads in the early years of television.  But it was President Kennedy in the summer of 1963, then contemplating his own re-election campaign, who had first decided to use the New York group that would prepare the “Daisy Girl” ad.  Doyle Dane Bernbach, known as DDB in the trade, was the firm Kennedy had selected.  He had been impressed by the modern approach of DDB’s Volkswagen “Think Small” ads, and the Avis “We Try Harder”campaign.  Madison Avenue generally had been avoiding the Democrats since the 1950s and the days of Adlai Stevenson.  But Doyle Dane Bernbach accepted the work with Johnson and the Democrats, later explaining they feared Goldwater and favored Johnson.

     In the general election, Johnson crushed Goldwater, winning 64.9 percent of the popular vote, one of the largest winning percentages ever recorded.
 
     For addtional stories at this website related to politics, please visit the “Politics” category page or visit the Home page for other story choices.  Thanks for visiting.  – Jack Doyle

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Date Posted:  15 April 2008
Last Update:  26 November 2012
Comments to: jdoyle@pophistorydig.com

Article Citation:
Jack Doyle, “LBJ’s Atomic Ad,” PopHistory
Dig.com
, April 15, 2008.

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Sources, Links & Additional Information

Pray 2: The Woods release

John D. Morris, “Parties Sign Fair-Play Pledge, Then Wrangle Over Johnson Ad, New York Times, Saturday, September 12, 1964, p.10.

Nan Robertson, “Johnson and Goldwater Open Television Campaigns, With Both Planning Big Outlays,” New York Times, Tuesday, September 15, 1964, p. 18.

“The Fear & The Facts,” Nuclear Issue cover story, Time, Friday, September 25, 1964.

Pete Hamill, “When the Client Is a Candidate, New York Times Sunday Magazine, October 25, 1964, p. 30.

“Daisy” (television advertisement),Wikipedia.org.

For an exhaustive treatment of the history and politics behind the “Daisy Girl” ad, see: “Daisy: The Complete History of an Infamous and Iconic Ad,” @ www.conelrad.com.



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