The Best Political Ad Ever

LBJ, Barry Goldwater, and the Ad That Changed American Politics by Robert Mann

Robert Mann’s Daisy Petals and Mushroom Clouds: LBJ, Barry Goldwater, and the Ad That Changed American Politics is disguised as a slender academic monograph but it’s actually a political thriller. Mann, who holds the Manship Chair in Mass Communications at Louisiana State University, worked the moshpit of Louisiana politics for many years and his expertise is evident as he dissects the watershed Presidential election of 1964.

Mann begins with a preview of Barry Goldwater’s embrace of and by the far right. In 1959, Goldwater allowed a National Review editor to combine his speeches with his near-obsessive view of the Soviet menace. The resulting bestseller, The Conscience of a Conservative, catapulted the Arizona Republican to the 1964 nomination. Goldwater proposed use of what he called  “small, clean nuclear weapons for use in limited wars” against Communist foes.

Over the years, Goldwater refined his ideas to include defoliating the forests of Vietnam and Laos with “low-yield atomic weapons.” He accepted the Presidential nomination in his typical fiery manner and uncorked a classic that has inspired principled conservatives ever since: “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”

Democrats were not the only Americans alarmed by Goldwater’s fervor. An aide to George Romney — Mitt’s father and Michigan’s governor at the time — fretted to a Time reporter, “Can you imagine what would have happened if Goldwater had been in the White House during the Cuban Missile Crisis?” The reporter continues, deliciously, “The aide thereupon touched a lighted cigarette to an inflated balloon. Pop!”

Having watched Goldwater flail all summer, Lyndon Johnson reached a decision in by late August and summoned his entire campaign team. Johnson related a story of a man rescued from a fire. The man was too high, so the fireman threw him a rope and they pulled him down. As Johnson saw it, “Barry’s already got a rope around him, and he’s knotted it pretty firm. All you have to do is give it a little tug.” Enter Doyle Dane Bernbach, a small New York ad firm best known for its spots selling the VW Bug.

DDB had some radical plans for political advertising, which at the time mostly consisted of candidates buying blocks of regular programming to sit behind a desk and talk at the camera for thirty minutes, basically just a speech that would pre-empt the regular programming. In 1952, one disgruntled viewer sent a telegram to Adlai Stevenson: “I like Ike and I love Lucy. Drop Dead.”

That same year, Eisenhower instead did a series of television ads in which he answered questions from “regular” Americans. Although the former general found the ads humiliating, they were an enormous success. The marriage of politics and television was consummated.

DDB came to the attention of the Johnson campaign by way of Lloyd Wright and Bill Moyers, and discovered a President whose own approach to advertising was blunt: “Men worry about heart attacks. Women worry about cancer of the tit. But everybody worries about war and peace. Everything else is chicken shit.”

Expected to win by a landslide, Johnson was nevertheless concerned about the firebrand Goldwater. Gallup and Harris polls from August 14, 1964 showed a 59-32 victory for Johnson. This yawning 27-point gap was not wide enough to quell Johnson’s fear, so DDB finalized their first ad and showed it to the President. His comment was a simple “Good job, boys.” DDB bought ad time for September 7, 1964, during NBC’s popular “Monday Night at the Movies.”

The infamous Daisy Petals commercial shows a young girl plucking and counting daisy petals, adorably inverting a few numbers. Her idyll is interrupted by the harsh sound of a man’s voice droning a countdown. The ad ends with a nuclear mushroom cloud filling the screen.

Daisy Petals was aired a single time, and Mann describes the ad and its creation in brilliant detail. He finds the soundman who pioneered both the use of real children’s voices and the disembodied voice of a countdown, effects used to devastating purpose. The ad itself, which remains a minor hit on YouTube, is a masterpiece of suspense. Never does the ad mention Goldwater. Never does the ad claim a candidate will start a nuclear war. The Daisy Petals ad ended Goldwater’s campaign instantly and with finality.

Mann concludes that showing the ad only once was a masterstroke. The specter of nuclear holocaust was terrifying. But if the ad repeated, audiences would have grown inured to the threat, a psychological effect called habitution. And Goldwater found a way to keep pulling the rope around himself. On September 18, Goldwater gave a half-hour televised speech responding to the ad, which amounted to paying to give Johnson’s ad an extra radioactive half-life.

Goldwater never forgave the Johnson campaign for what he called “electronic dirt.” Goldwater particularly hated Bill Moyers, writing of him that “he portrayed himself as a poor preacher boy, but he was actually involved in the dirtiest work …. Every time I see him, I get sick to my stomach.”

Moyers – now better known as venerated television journalist, but for years a loyal Johnson aide—comes off as a dirty trickster in Mann’s book. Moyers, at Johnson’s request, asked the FBI to investigate several members of the Goldwater team, a particularly loaded ask because Johnson’s own aide, Walter Jenkins, had been arrested on October 7 for homosexual acts at a YMCA. In a 1974 Newsweek article about the investigation, Moyers tells what Mann concludes to be a lie about why he asked the FBI for information.

Moyers refused an interview with Mann for the book and thus leaves uncontested a spectacularly nasty act for a man who later would instruct PBS viewers to follow their bliss.

While the Daisy Petals ad annihilated the Goldwater campaign, Mann believes it may have been a Pyrrhic victory for the Democrats. The Republican party shifted its base dramatically after the Goldwater fiasco, and conservatives in the Goldwater mold shrewdly outflanked East Coast moderates, setting the stage for Ronald Reagan’s surprising national strength in 1976 and eventual victory in 1980.

The country rejected Goldwater in 1964, but Goldwater’s spot on the political spectrum is much closer to the middle today than to the edge. Even Goldwater’s view of Communism — dismissed as hysterical by the intelligentsia that continues to pat itself on the back for standing up to big bad Joe McCarthy and makes saints of the 11 or so guys who were forced to suffer insufficient access to the screenwriter’s guild — seems less radical as the reality of mass murder under communist regimes is examined with the clarity of hindsight.

Mann’s book is as carefully conducted as a symphony, and it crescendos with great intensity on the night of the ad’s airing. The memos at the end bolster his research and contain some gems, such as this note to the President on October 20, 1964: “Our television has been most ineffective. We have used the same spots over and over until they have outlived their usefulness.”

How fascinating that the campaign that ran the single most effective political ad in history complains, within five weeks of that ad, about the ability of the ads to matter to voters.

Daisy Petals and Mushroom Clouds: LBJ, Barry Goldwater, and the Ad That Changed American Politics by Robert Mann

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Ken Kurson

Ken Kurson is the founder of Sea of Reeds Media. He is the former editor in chief of the New York Observer and also founded Green Magazine and covered finance for Esquire magazine for almost 20 years. Ken is the author of several books, including the New York Times No. 1 bestseller Leadership.

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