I remember the daisy ad. Anyone alive in 1964 has to remember. What I didn’t realize until the death of its creator, Tony Schwartz, is the fact that it was broadcast as a TV ad only once. After that, it was news. Then it became a legend.
I was nine years old. I wouldn’t admit to pulling petals off daisies, but I could identify with that little girl’s worried look in the ad’s freeze frame. Nuclear Armageddon was the everyday angst back then, the all-purpose paranoia supplanted only by terrorism and 9/11 when “everything changed.” I started paying attention to world news during the Cuban missle crisis. When I turned on the TV first thing on Saturday morning, eager for cartoons, I stared at the test pattern and waited patriotically for the reassurance, “This is a test, only a test…” I’d dutifully rehearsed the “duck and cover” bomb drill a hundred times before I got out of grade school. When Lyndon Johnson campaigned in Dayton in October 1964, my father put me on his shoulders and pressed through the surging crowd toward the President. Reaching over a Secret Service agent, I shook LBJ’s hand and thought, “No, this guy cares about kids. He won’t push the button and wipe us all out.” The daisy ad worked on me. Vietnam was just an exotic name on a map then, like Laos or Phnom Penh, Baghdad or Tehran.
Tony Schwartz is credited, or blamed, for creating TV’s first political attack ad. It was viral marketing, too, decades before that buzzword was invented. Here’s what the NYT obit says about it:
Of the thousands of television and radio advertisements on which Mr. Schwartz worked, none is as well known, or as controversial, as the so-called “daisy ad,” made for Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidential campaign.
Produced by the advertising agency Doyle Dane Bernbach in collaboration with Mr. Schwartz, the minutelong spot was broadcast on Sept. 7, 1964, during NBC’s “Monday Night at the Movies.” It showed a little girl in a meadow (in reality a Manhattan park), counting aloud as she plucks the petals from a daisy. Her voice dissolves into a man’s voice counting downward, followed by the image of an atomic blast. President Johnson’s voice is heard on the soundtrack:
“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.” (The president’s speech deliberately invoked a line from “September 1, 1939,” a poem by W. H. Auden written at the outbreak of World War II.)
Though the name of Johnson’s opponent, Senator Barry M. Goldwater, was never mentioned, Goldwater’s campaign objected strenuously to the ad. So did many members of the public, Republicans and Democrats alike. The spot was pulled from the air after a single commercial, though it was soon repeated on news broadcasts. It had done its work: with its dire implications about Goldwater and nuclear responsibility, the daisy ad was credited with contributing to Johnson’s landslide victory at the polls in November. It was also credited with heralding the arrival of ferociously negative political advertising in the United States.
In interviews and on his Web site, tonyschwartz.org, Mr. Schwartz said he had created the daisy ad in its entirety, an account that was disputed by members of the Doyle Dane Bernbach team. (The ad was modeled directly on a radio commercial for nuclear disarmament that Mr. Schwartz had made for the United Nations in the early 1960s.) What is generally acknowledged is that Mr. Schwartz was responsible, at minimum, for the audio concept of the daisy ad — the child counting up, the man counting down, the explosion — and for producing the soundtrack.
Mr. Schwartz helped develop advertising campaigns for hundreds of political candidates, most of them Democrats, among them Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. (All made the trek to Mr. Schwartz’s home to be filmed.) He was also known for creating some of television’s earliest anti-smoking commercials.
… To the end of his career, Mr. Schwartz was often asked about the daisy ad. To the end of his career, he defended it.
“For many years, it’s been referred to as the beginning of negative commercials,” Mr. Schwartz said in an interview with MSNBC in 2000. “There was nothing negative about it. Frankly, I think it was the most positive commercial ever made.”