Daisy - 50 Years Later

Sept. 7 marks the 50th anniversary of one of the most powerful and controversial commercials of all time: the Daisy spot for the Lyndon Johnson campaign against Barry Goldwater in 1964. The 60-second spot aired only once, on Labor Day evening during a commercial break for the movie "David and Bathsheba" on NBC -- yet it had a major impact on the campaign and political advertising that would follow in the decades ahead.

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.    

3 comments about "Daisy - 50 Years Later".
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  1. Roy Moskowitz from Reciprocal Results, September 6, 2014 at 9:14 p.m.

    I first became aware that Schwartz penned the famous spot in 1986, when I was 24 (I was 2 when the spot originally aired), at a PRSA event in his Manhattan apartment. He was a true genius.

  2. Nicole Baron Dietrich from Arizona State, September 7, 2014 at 5:01 p.m.

    First, it is crazy to think it has been 50 years since this ad campaign aired. To think how much the times have changed since then is absolutely mind-boggling. We have advanced tremendously in the world of advertising and technology, but this ad is still brilliant, despite its simplicity. The idea behind this ad really touches on the “safety needs” if we consider Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. People were moved to vote for Johnson so they could protect their families and themselves from harm. Although it’s stated in the article that this ad was not the sole reason for Johnson’s win, it became apparent that he was ready to do his job as a protector of the U.S.

    This ad was almost a way to guilt people into voting for Johnson because of the psychosocial consequences you would feel if you had not voted for Johnson (not that it was a bad thing to vote for Johnson). There was a lot of symbolism within in the 60 second commercial, but it was relatable and moved people enough to vote. Overall, the ad agency did a tremendous job for Johnson’s campaign. Whether it was Dane or Schwartz who came up with the genius idea is trivial at this point, in my opinion. The main point is that the agency did their job and they did it well because Johnson won the election. The one thing I consider about political campaigns is just how biased or unbiased the ad agencies are. I wonder if this particular ad agency had been asked to make a commercial for Goldwater, would it have been as successful? Does bias make a difference in the quality of advertising?

  3. Robin Solis from synchronicity.co, September 8, 2014 at 6:45 p.m.

    Brilliant *because* of it's simplicity. A direct Emotional Appeal.

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