The Grandfather of Negative Campaign Ads Gets Back in the Game

Mad Men is based on his old firm. Now 79, Sid Myers talks about his 1964 "Daisy" ad, the current GOP campaign, and changing political advertising forever.

Sid Myers thinks Rick Santorum's latest attack ad, which depicts a Mitt Romney doppelgänger firing mud from a machine gun at the former Pennsylvania senator, is so "ludicrous" that it will ultimately hurt the GOP contender's run. Myers knows what he's talking about: The 79-year-old was part of the team that masterminded the 1964 "Daisy" ad, widely considered to be the first ever negative campaign commercial.

That anti-Barry Goldwater spot, above, begins with the image of a little girl counting daisy petals as she picks them off the flower. Her innocent counting leads into a male announcer's countdown to a bomb detonation, and then this ominous monologue: "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. Vote for President Johnson on November 3. The stakes are too high to stay home."

The commercial sought to highlight Goldwater's proposed use of nuclear weapons against Communists, and in Vietnam and Laos. It aired only once, and has been the benchmark ever since for effective negative campaign advertising, ushering in an era of creative campaign ads that went beyond the straight-to-the-camera speeches politicians had been using in since Eisenhower first took up spot advertising for his presidential bid.

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.

EW: And you aren't finished with creating bold and unusual ads, it seems. Tell me about the birth of Senior Creative People, the new ad agency that you and three others founded.

SM: There was a reunion of all the creative people that worked at DDB in the '60s last June. A few of us got together and said, "Hey wait a second, we've still got our marbles, we're still terrific. We've learned a lot of things. We're even smarter now than we were then just by living. Why don't we try to form this content around senior creative people and have our market be seniors, or the postwar babies who are now in their 60s?" So we got together and did it. We're getting a lot of publicity and a lot of comments from all over the world on our website. So we'll see what happens.

EW: Have you snagged any clients?

SM: There are a lot of irons in the fire right now. We've only been together about two or three months -- it formed sometime in the end of August or September.

EW: I'm sure you've never been asked this question before: How much of what we see in Mad Men is accurate?

SM: There was one chapter of the show that showed this ad from DDB, a Volkswagen ad. The guy who was writing it I think either worked at DDB or knew someone, because before the show went on the air he called a lot of people from DDB and other agencies to get background information that he could use on the show. But [in terms of] the things that they show on [Mad Men], all the drinking and the womanizing, my partner [has] said, "We didn't do that much drinking, but there was some womanizing."

We were more into pot than alcohol. There were a lot of hippies who would come in in jeans and long beards. One of the guys had a marijuana plant growing in his office. I don't think Bill Bernbach knew what it was -- they were so straight and so clean. It was pretty wild there.

A version of this story originally appeared on the Delve into '12 blog of the New America Foundation.