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Some say this is where the trouble began… or political advertising loses a giant. June 28, 2008

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Culture.

An interesting piece on SlateV about Tony Schwartz [you have to go looking, but it’s there alright on the right hand side of the screen under “RIP, Mushroom Cloud Man] who is regarded as one of the most important political advertisement makers in the United States. It was he who created the remarkable Lyndon B. Johnson “Daisy Girl” television spot during the 1964 U.S. Presidential campaign, which according to his obituary in the New York Times is now ‘…generally considered to be the most famous political ad to appear on television’.

As Adweek noted in a profile of Schwartz from last week:

Produced by DDB, the 60-second ad captured the angst and anxiety of the Cold War era. It opens on a small girl counting as she plucks petals from a daisy. She is clearly heard counting up — until an older male voice takes over, counting down. The image of an atomic explosion closes the spot on a jarring note, accompanied by a Johnson voiceover that concludes: “We must either love each other, or we must die.”

The spot caused such an uproar that it aired only once, but many media watchers believe it ushered in the era of negative advertising in politics that persists to the present day.

What I find most interesting about his work is the way utilises sound. Schwartz had lost his sight for a period when in his teens and it seems reasonable to suggest that this gave him an increased awareness of how sound shaped perception. Add to this his profound agoraphobia – which was so pronounced that throughout his career many politicians had to make the trip to his home where he produced his work – and it is clear that he was uniquely suited to shape sound to the rising visual medium. The “Daisy Girl” advertisement certainly played on that with a booming voice intoning a countdown over the image of the girl. That uneasy juxtaposition serves to foreshadow the unexpected image of the nuclear explosion seconds later.

Indeed the New York Times notes that:

But detractors and admirers alike praised Mr. Schwartz as a pioneer in putting sound to more effective use in television advertising. He was credited, for instance, with being the first to use real children’s voices in television commercials, beginning in the late 1950s. (Advertisers had considered young children too intractable to deliver lines on cue; theirs had traditionally been recorded by adult actresses trying to sound like children.)

The jury may well still be out on the ramifications of that particular pioneering work. Schwartz had a degree in graphic design from the Pratt Institute and worked as an artist for the US Navy. As it happened he was a Democrat and was particularly keen on health promotions, his work for the American Cancer Society was innovative in terms of promotion.

But to contextualise how novel his style consider this more traditional television spot for Barry Goldwater from the 1964 campaign (incidentally, am I wrong, but didn’t Hillary Clinton do volunteer work for Goldwater then?).

It seems to tick the necessary boxes, with overt displays of patriotism, clips of Kruschev threatening the United States and a short piece to camera from the candidate. And yet the political and emotive power of the advertisement is stifled by the entirely conventional structure.

It is, of course, unwise to ascribe simple casual relationships between such material and actual political outcomes. And on a political axis it was never likely that Johnson would lose to Goldwater, particularly in the aftermath of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. But, it is possible to argue that the much more succinct and emotive messages contained within the Johnson advert are more effective as political messages.

Almost inevitably, the Johnson advert was emulated in a piece for the Hubert Humphrey campaign four years later.

The visual imagery was clever with a nuclear explosion run forward and in reverse. However, it lacked the human element accentuated in the juxtaposition of the young girl and the nuclear explosion. Humphrey did not win.

By contrast consider this Nixon advert, which perhaps uneasily appropriated elements of youth culture and advertising, and yet seemed in the almost blandly innocuous message to point towards much more contemporary modes of political and commercial imagery.

Schwartz always took umbrage at the suggestion that his work introduced a profoundly negative element into political advertising, and it truth you only have to look at campaign posters from prior to this time from any country to see that negativity has been central to political communication, but, that said he was pivotal to introducing it to US television campaigning.

His defense?

“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.”

Ah… advertising…


1. Starkadder - June 28, 2008

I remember the little girl ad being shown at the
start of Fatboy Slim’s “”Sunset (Bird of Prey)” video,which
I’m sure was directed by Spike Jonze.


2. FutureTaoiseach - June 28, 2008

Maybe if the yes side had used the mushroom cloud ad the outcome of Lisbon could have been different. 🙂


3. D.J.P. O'Kane - July 9, 2008

Here’s an interesting story about John McCain’s current ad, which tackles Barack ‘the Lightbringer’ Obama’s themes of hope and change head on, while explicitly repudiating The Sixties, Maaan.


‘Don’t Hope for Change, Vote for It’. Quite good I thought.


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