Myers, a former art director for the advertising agency Doyle Dane Bernbach (DDB), attended the New America Foundation's event on negative advertising last Friday. I caught up with him for a conversation about the birth of the iconic 1964 ad, his impressions of modern attack commercials, and, of course, how his firm has been represented in the TV show Mad Men, on which it is partially based. Excerpts from the conversation are printed below.
Elizabeth Weingarten: Tell me about 1964. Where did the idea to create ads against Barry Goldwater come from?
Sid Myers: It was the Democratic National Committee who assigned the project to Doyle Dane Bernbach. Bill Bernbach [ the agency's founder] set up a team of about 10 art directors and copywriters to be on this account. Stan Lee and myself were the heads of the group. We were handed a large folder of every speech that Goldwater had made since he started in politics.
We didn't start out saying we're going to do negative commercials. Before [our ads], commercials were very generic. The candidate would stand in front of a camera for half an hour and talk about his issues. What we did was take some of the more outrageous statements [Goldwater said] and illustrate them -- like the one where he said the USA would be better off if we just sawed off the Eastern seaboard and let it float out to sea. [It's] pretty outrageous for someone who is running to be president of all the people to say something like that.
EW: Was there any resistance from either the DNC or from DDB to run these ads?
SM: No, none whatsoever. It was sort of a crusade -- we were really fighting this guy.
EW: Did you realize at the time how radical these ads were? Was there a sense that these could have a big impact on political discourse?
SM: No. You never know when you're doing a creative project like a movie or a play. You know you're doing something that's good and worthwhile, but you never know what the impact is going to be until it's shown and the public reacts to it. I think they knew that Gone With The Wind was going to be a pretty nice picture, but I don't think they knew how impactful it would be. This was the way we used to do work for national clients -- we did unusual, impactful kind of work. That's the kind of work we did for everybody. There wasn't a special sit down where we said, we're going to just do attack ads, or dirty ads. That wasn't the intent.
EW: Attack ads have evolved quite a bit since then. What's your take on some of the commercials of the last few cycles?
SM: Most of them now are taking quotes out of context. The one that Santorum did of Romney with the machine gun was just ludicrous, just a stupid ad. I think he hurt himself by doing that. I think that the Republicans are killing themselves. They're handing the election off to Obama up to this point. They're destroying each other.... The Swift Boat ads, I guess they worked, but they weren't based on the truth. They were based on half -truths and innuendos. What we tried to do was look at what Goldwater had [truthfully] said, and present it in an unusual and bold way.