Less than a year ago, I wrote that Lee Atwater deserved much of the credit for our present state of polarization, thanks to the way he ran George H.W. Bush's national campaign 26 years ago.
But I guess credit for the template for divisive modern political advertising goes to Lyndon Johnson and his 1964 campaign staff. They were responsible for a commercial that is remembered as the "daisy commercial." It had its one and only airing 50 years ago today.
It showed a little girl plucking the petals from a flower, as small children do, and counting. The girl who was shown in the commercial was 2 years old, and she was observed in a very serene, pastoral setting.
As she counted to 10 — haltingly and, at times, out of sequence, which is understandable with a child that age — an adult voice began a missile launch countdown in the background, and the camera zoomed in on the girl's face until the pupil of her eye filled the screen.
"These are the stakes," Johnson said. "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."
"Fifty years later, the visual is startling — even shocking," writes John Rash for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "But just as jarring are the words."
Another voice — I've heard it was sportscaster Chris Schenkel's (but I heard Schenkel call football games when I was growing up, and the voice in the commercial never sounded like his voice to me) — then said, "Vote for President Johnson on Nov. 3. The stakes are too high for you to stay home."
The message was clear. Johnson's opponent, Barry Goldwater, could not be trusted with nuclear weapons.
"You can love 'Daisy' for its power or hate it for its excess — I both love it and hate it — but it changed political advertising forever," wrote Drew Babb in the Washington Post.
It cannot be denied that the daisy commercial was an effective reminder that Goldwater had voted against the nuclear test ban treaty.
Babb, who teaches political advertising at American University and is president of the firm Drew Babb & Associates, went on to list the ways it changed political advertising. The logic is hard to fault.
- "It gave politicians a license to kill."
Babb observed that "[e]arlier political commercials were overwhelmingly upbeat." He pointed out that, only four years earlier, an advertisement for John F. Kennedy featured Frank Sinatra singing a revised version of "High Hopes."
Dwight Eisenhower's commercials were relentlessly upbeat.
Of course, television was still in its infancy then. As it grew up, it grew teeth. Fangs, in fact.
- "By all means, trash the tropes."
The rules were clearly different. Johnson's ad agency was largely made up of "New York street brawlers" accustomed to competing over products, not politics, and they did what they knew.
- "Overreacting can boomerang."
That is a fact that both parties should keep in mind today. Advertising has become much more sophisticated in half a century, but the experience of 1964 should not be forgotten. Republicans howled about the ad, and Johnson's campaign pulled it after its only showing 50 years ago today. But the networks reported on the Republican reaction and, so the viewers would know what the fuss was about, ran the ad over and over again.
If they hadn't seen it when it aired as a commercial, they were bound to have seen it when it was shown repeatedly on the nightly news. Consequently, the message was reinforced — and almost certainly contributed to Johnson's landslide victory that fall.
It pulls no punches. Here is what the narrator says:
"These are the stakes. We either stand up to supporters of terrorism, or we and our allies risk losing the freedom we cherish. We must not let the jihadist government of Iran get a nuclear bomb. President Obama has an opportunity to stop it. But he is failing. Join with us. Let's secure America — now."