In the spot, a little girl counts petals that she peels from a daisy. As she reaches the number 10, the camera zooms into her eye and we hear an announcer counting down for the blast of an atomic bomb. The bomb explodes and we hear Lyndon Johnson saying: "These are the stakes, to make a world in which all of God's children can live or to go into the darkness. We must either love each other or we must die." A voiceover ends the spot with the words "Vote for President Johnson on November 3rd. The stakes are too high for you to stay home." (The ad can be viewed on YouTube.)
After the spot aired, the Republicans cried foul and the news media picked up the story, repeating it in TV news programs many times. Time magazine put a still from the spot on its cover a few weeks later. So anyone who missed the movie was sure to see it or know about it. Daisy went viral long before we used that term. Although the spot never mentioned Barry Goldwater, it evoked feelings in many people that he would be too quick to use atomic weapons. Some said that the spot ensured victory for Johnson, although this is probably an exaggeration, since Johnson had so much going for him and Goldwater was viewed by many as an extremist. Johnson surely would have won without Daisy, although the spot did appear to move Johnson up in the polls.
The spot is also controversial in terms of who made it. Doyle, Dane Bernbach was Johnson's ad agency, and they took full credit for it. Over time, it became clear that the idea for the spot came from Tony Schwartz, who Doyle Dane had hired to work on commercials for Johnson. Schwartz actually created a radio spot for the United Nations a few years before that was virtually identical to the Daisy spot, minus the visuals. Doyle Dane's Sid Myers and Stanley Lee were responsible for the visuals, but they are a literal rendition of the audio track and concept that were provided by Tony Schwartz. He deserves credit as the auteur.
Fifty years on, there are many lessons to be derived from the Daisy spot. It was remarkable for its use of powerful symbols and its simplicity: a little girl counting petals, an atomic bomb exploding (reminding viewers that many little girls, including their own children, would be killed in a nuclear war), and a suggestion that one person running for president would be more likely to protect the little girls. It also illustrates a principle that Tony Schwartz would later write about. Some of the most powerful messages in advertising are not in the ad -- they are in the heads and attitudes of viewers -- but are evoked by the advertising. Tony Schwartz called this the responsive chord principle. He used it time and again in the ads he created for commercial products, politicians and public service campaigns.