Daisy Petals and Mushroom Clouds

Robert Mann


A little girl stands in a field. She is pulling the petals off a daisy, “He loves me, he loves me not” style, and her small voice counts: “One, two, three …”

A harsher, adult voice intrudes: “Ten, nine, eight …” As the countdown ends, the camera zooms into the girl’s eye, and in its dark centre we see the sudden explosion of an atomic bomb.

President Lyndon Johnson’s voice intones that “We must either love each other, or we must die.” The announcer’s message at the end: “Vote for President Johnson on November 3. The stakes are too high for you to stay home.”

The ad ran only once, but it is one of the most important — and still one of the most powerful — pieces of television political advertizing ever seen.

In Daisy Petals and Mushroom Clouds: LBJ, Barry Goldwater, and the Ad That Changed American Politics, LSU  Communications Professor and former political aide Robert Mann chronicles the genesis and development of the “Daisy Girl” ad.

More important, he uses it and other parts of the Johnson campaign to show how the 1964 presidential contest was the watershed election in which television first showed its power to persuade voters, to replace ideas with images, arguments with emotions, fact with attack.

It’s an important moment in modern politics, and Robert Mann skillfully teases his thesis out of the wealth of archival and first person sources which give his account of the Johnson campaign’s 1964 strategy so much life and make Daisy Petals and Mushroom Clouds such an interesting read.

– * –

It’s 1964, and Lyndon Johnson, desperate for a landslide victory that will legitimize his unelected presidency, is running for election against Republican Senator Barry Goldwater.

Goldwater is a loose cannon, and he is already hampered by a reputation, mostly self-inflicted, as a trigger-happy radical. Johnson is sure to win, and by a large margin. But that isn’t enough for Johnson. He wants to crush Goldwater, to win a historic victory. As part of his election campaign, Johnson hires Doyle Dale Bernbach (DBB),  the ad agency behind Volkswagen’s viral “Think Small” campaign.

The Daisy Girl ad was unlike anything seen before. It never showed Johnson or Goldwater. It never mentioned Goldwater’s name, or showed it in print. It never mentioned war or nuclear weapons or the threat of annihilation.

What it presented was not an idea or a policy — it educed an emotional response. The Daisy Girl ad was the first time the audience was asked — compelled — to connect the dots for itself. It wasn’t something someone else said — it was something the viewer experienced.

And it ran only once. The reaction was so immediate, so wide, and so visceral that there was no need to repeat the experience. In fact, Mann shows, the Johnson campaign happily and cynically allowed themselves to be convinced by the negative reaction to “pull” the ad. After all, the damage had been done, and with every news outlet in the country running the story, the ad was being shown over and over, and to a much wider audience than the estimated five million viewers who saw it the one time it ran.

Television, advertizing, and politics would never be the same again. Mann quotes Goldwater, from his 1988 memoir: “Those bomb commercials were the start of dirty political ads on television. It was the beginning of what I call ‘electronic dirt.’”

The Daisy Girl ad wasn’t DDB’s only foray into image- and emotion-based ads for the Johnson campaign. Mann chronicles several other, similar spots.

Among them was “Little Girl, Ice Cream Cone,” in which another little girl is seen, this time eating an ice cream cone. A female voice (another first for political advertizing) says:

Do you know what people used to do? They used to explode atomic bombs in the air. Now children should have lots of vitamin A and calcium, but they shouldn’t have any Strontium 90 or Cesium 137. These things come from atomic bombs, and they are radioactive. They can make you die. Do you know what people finally did? They got together and signed a nuclear test ban treaty. And then the radioactive poison started to go away. But now there’s a man who wants to be president of the United States, and he doesn’t like this treaty. He fought against it. He even voted against it. He wants to go on testing more bombs. His name is Barry Goldwater, and if he is elected they might start testing all over again.

Another ad, “Telephone Hot Line,” was the first iteration of the now familiar scenario in which the White House “Hot Line” phone rings in the middle of the night. No one answers. A voice is heard over the ringing telephone: ““This particular phone only rings in a serious crisis. Leave it in the hands of a man who has proven himself responsible.”

This was not 1956, with Adlai Stevenson stiffly reading 30-minute policy speeches on a bare set. This wasn’t even 1960, when, despite the fame of the “5 o’clock shadow” debate, the combatants made little use of television. This was aggressive, emotion-laden  advertizing. For the first time, politicians were subject to negative image-making, to sophisticated and professional manipulation of their public personae by experts. Politicians — and politics — would never be the same again. Mann writes:

By the 1968 presidential election, however, political advertising had undergone a stunning transformation. Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey’s spots were mostly in color, featured creative uses of music and other sound and employed imagery that demonstrated a fuller understanding of how to use television to generate emotional responses rather than simply dispense information.

In the years since the 1964 election, it is likely that no presidential campaign commercial has been viewed more than the Daisy Girl spot. Despite having been shown just a handful of times on national television— and only once as a paid advertisement—the spot was not only credited (inaccurately) for the historic defeat of Barry Goldwater but also ushered in a new era in political advertising in which the chief objective was emotion, not information.

– * –

Television attack ads were not the only weapon in the Johnson campaign’s arsenal. Mann recounts the establishment of the first campaign “Dirty Tricks” office, under what Mann describes as the leadership of Bill Moyers. Among his many other campaign activities, Moyers is reported as having influenced the producers of the movie “Fail-Safe” to release the film early, so that it would be in theatres before the election. Although the film does not have a Goldwater-like figure, it does depict the nuclear incineration of Moscow and New York City. The Johnson campaign could only be helped by any reminder of the devastation a nuclear attack would cause.

The modern era of politics was under way.


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