The Grandfather of Negative Campaign Ads

How a 1964 TV commercial supporting Lyndon Johnson played to nuclear fears and set the standard for political attacks

The general election is now a year away. Soon, the airwaves will be filled with the venomous, negative campaign ads that we've all come to know and sometimes loathe. Parents of young children will be reaching for the Disney DVDs, hoping to protect their offspring from seeing those who aspire to elective office assassinate one other's character. By November 2012, somewhere in this big country, someone will be hurling something at a television set, screaming "No more!"

With all of that to look forward to, it's interesting to think back to the grandfather of negative campaign ads, the 1964 commercial that really started it all. It never actually mentioned the opponent's name or even made a direct reference to him. It was a subtle, yet devastating, ad--a far cry from the crude, blunt-instrument attacks most often seen today. It's still hard to watch the ad today and not say, "Wow."

In Robert Mann's just-released book, Daisy Petals and Mushroom Clouds: LBJ, Barry Goldwater, and the Ad That Changed American Politics, we learn why, how, and in what context the famous ad was developed by the Madison Avenue firm Doyle Dane Bernbach and media consultant Tony Schwartz. The Democratic National Committee created it at the behest of Lyndon Johnson's White House. Mann, who got his start as a press secretary and communications director for Sens. Russell Long and John Breaux, both Louisiana Democrats, has since become a respected historian. He is the author of seven books, a professor at the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University, and an authority on that period of American politics who has written acclaimed works on the Vietnam War and the civil-rights movement.

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The ad, shot in New York City's Highbridge Park, featured a 3-year-old, redheaded girl, Monique Corzilius. (She later appeared in ads for Kodak, SpaghettiOs, and Kool Pops.) In the ad, she is plucking and counting daisy petals. Just before she gets to 10, an ominous voice begins a countdown. Then, grainy footage of a nuclear mushroom cloud appears, followed by Johnson's voice saying, "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." A voiceover then says, "Vote for President Johnson on November 3. The stakes are too high for you to stay home."

The ad aired only once, at 9:50 p.m., on Sept. 7, 1964. It was during NBC's "Monday Night at the Movies," at a cost of $24,000. (Later reports indicated that the airtime actually cost $30,000.) An estimated 50 million viewers saw the ad. Ironically, the girl's parents didn't know that the footage of their daughter counting flower petals would appear in a Johnson campaign ad.

Mann's book lays out Americans' state of mind in those Cold War years of the late 1950s and early 1960s, when the specter of nuclear annihilation was ever present. (I vividly remember air-raid drills at Arthur Circle Elementary School in Shreveport, La., where we practiced sitting in the hallways with our heads between our knees.) Mann's book recounts the early reelection campaign planning by President Kennedy's staff. After his assassination, the Johnson team began preparing for the election in consultation with the DNC. The appendix features 39 pages of internal White House and DNC memoranda laying out the campaign media strategies--material sure to spark the interest of modern-day political junkies.

The 1964 race was never particularly close. Barry Goldwater was far from being the optimal Republican candidate. But one infers from the book and memos that Johnson's reelection apparatus was nevertheless nervous and didn't want to take anything for granted. Democrats felt compelled to raise doubts about Goldwater, to surface concerns that he was a hot-headed cowboy, someone not to be trusted with the nuclear button or dealings with other countries. At the same time, Mann relates how worried some Johnson advisers were that the ad was too hot. They fretted that it would be seen as "dirty" and "unfair." A backlash was possible.

Obviously, anyone sympathetic with Goldwater is likely to see the ad as unfair, even slanderous. Mann's book quotes Ben Bradlee, later the editor of The Washington Post, who described the ad as "a f*cking outrage." Seven years later, the late David Broder recounted a post-campaign conversation between Johnson advisers. Broder wrote about taking issue "with what I can only call lip-smacking glee," about what they had done to Goldwater.

Even if true, and perhaps unfair, the ad was more of a scalpel than a meat cleaver. But it definitely was wielded skillfully and more artfully than most negative ads we see today. Even then, Broder recounted a Johnson operative who worried that "some year an outfit as good as ours might go to work for the wrong candidate."

Daisy Petals and Mushroom Clouds is a great read for anyone interested in what goes on behind the scenes in politics. Why do campaigns behave the way they do? How was campaign strategy implemented through advertising during the infancy of television? It's a short (156 pages), rich look at a very important turning point in the history of American political campaigns: the birth of negative ads.

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