DC at Night

DC at Night

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Ad-ding Up the Vote

It has the simplest of names. It is called the Daisy Ad. It is 1 minute long. It aired only a single time. But it is the most famous, and controversial, TV ad in the history of political advertising.

If you have never seen it, here is what it contains. The ad begins with a very young girl pulling daisy petals and counting them. For the sake of childlike reality, she miscounts and then resumes. As soon as she reaches 1, a shrill military voice begins an ominous backwards countdown "10 ... 9 ... 8 ..." As the voice nears zero,  the camera zooms in, coming to rest inside the young girl's eye. Reflected there, we hear a roar as an atomic bomb is unleashed and we witness a mushroom cloud climbing skyward. The voice of Lyndon B. Johnson utters a brief statement ending with the phrase "...We must either love each other or we must die." The words Vote for President Johnson on November 3 appear on the screen as an announcer intones "Vote for President Johnson on Nov. 3. The stakes are too high for you to stay home."

Although it never mentioned Johnson's opponent by name the message was clear - Republican challenger Barry Goldwater was too hawkish to trust as president. A vote for him would doom the planet - and all of its little boys and girls - to fiery, horrific destruction. The ad was immediately pulled after it ran, but political pundits continued to discuss it and display it through the 1964 race. And on Nov. 3, Johnson handed Goldwater one of the most crushing defeats in presidential political history.

Not surprisingly, the Daisy ad features strongly in the short film about political advertising now showing at the Newseum to accompany the exhibit Every Four Years: Presidential Campaigns and the Press.

The era of television ads for presidents began with the 1952 election campaign of Dwight Eisenhower. The Disney company produced a primitive ad entitled "I Like Ike" for the American public. Only 32% of American homes then had television sets, but as the TV rose in prominence over the decades, so did the amount and sophistication of the televised political ads. Many, following the tone established by the Daisy ad, fell into the negative category. There was the infamous Willie Horton ad, which linked Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis to a black criminal which he had paroled while governor of Massachusetts. Horton, while out of jail, committed a murder. Perhaps the most mean-spirited of all belonged to the 1968 campaign of Hubert Humphrey. When his opponent Richard Nixon chose unknown Maryland Gov. Spiro Agnew as his running mate, the Democrats aired a commercial  with only the words "Spiro Agnew for Vice President" on the screen and the sound of a man convulsing in fits of laughter. An announcer intoned at the end: "This would be funny if it weren't so serious." Ironically, even though the Nixon/Agnew team won, neither successful candidate was able to finish their term in office as both were forced to resign.

While many of the ads showcased focused on negativity, not all did. The film cites two of the most effective positive TV political ads in history - President Ronald Reagan's "Morning in America" and Bill Clinton's "A Man from Hope."

The film concludes with a segment showing how then-candidate Barack Obama used such new social media as YouTube and Facebook to help lead him to the White House in 2008. However, as the current presidential election season is graphically demonstrating on an hourly basis, the days of TV ads are still far from over.  Political candidates in the pioneering days of television may have believed that trying to sell a campaign on TV would result in translating the presidency into a bar of soap. But today's candidates know that without these ads, they will never obtain their goal of living at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
People constantly complain about negative political ads. So why do they continue to air? One answer was delivered recently by Washington Post political writer  Chris Cillizza during a talk at the Newseum. "You  may not like them; everyone says that. But they work. Campaigns are not going to dump money into things that don't work. They worm their way into your consciousness. I guarantee if you go into a voting booth, whether you vote for Romney or not, you're going to think about the fact that he really can't sing 'America the Beautiful,'" Cillizza said at that time..

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