During the summer of 1964, Aaron Ehrlich, who worked at the New York advertising firm Doyle Dane Bernbach, placed a phone call to an idiosyncratic sound engineer named Tony Schwartz. Schwartz, 40, an intense man with combed-back brown hair and puffy cheeks, had in the preceding years developed something of a cult following on Madison Avenue, and was presumed to have an almost preternatural feel for what made television commercials work. In time, the media theorist Marshall McLuhan would declare Schwartz to be nothing short of a “guru of the electronic age.”
More mundanely, Schwartz was a collector of sounds. As a young radio host at WNYC in the ’40s, he would tool around Manhattan with a 16-pound portable tape recorder he designed himself. Schwartz documented the noises of daily life in Hell’s Kitchen—ethnic music, children playing, street vendors—which he then released on long-playing records. Over time, his work came to be talked about in the advertising world, and the Mad Men of the era sought his advice. One of Schwartz’s innovations was to use children’s voices in commercials—something that the agencies had rarely done, because kids were too likely to botch lines. But Schwartz believed that their innocent errors and endearing flubs enhanced their appeal. He soon won acclaim for ads like one for Bosco syrup featuring the glug-glug-glug of a child chugging down his chocolate milk. Another spot was for a Polaroid instant camera, which featured his nephew’s voice counting off numbers.
Drawing on his interest in sound, Schwartz formulated a set of theories about television and advertising that argued, counterintuitively, that even in television, sound was more important than image. He later set them forth in a book called The Responsive Chord—using, tellingly, a sonic metaphor. A fascinating mix of brilliant insight and opaque mumbo-jumbo, the book argued that advertisers misfired with their TV ads so often because they misunderstood the medium. Television commercials, unlike print, should be understood as sensory experiences, not linear messages. “No one ever asked of a Steichen photograph, ‘Is it true or false?’” Schwartz noted.
This insight had ramifications for politics. In the 1952 election, another hot young ad man, Rosser Reeves of the Ted Bates Agency, had shot for Dwight Eisenhower the first-ever 30-second television “spots,” touting his own theories of the “USP”—the “Unique Selling Proposition” that he claimed every product (or candidate) needed. The Eisenhower ads made short TV commercials an essential part of subsequent presidential campaigns. By 1964 the power of the men and women who crafted these ads was held in awe. “There are those who say that ad men know so much about how to manipulate mass emotions that they endanger democratic processes,” wrote Peter Bart of The New York Times. He cited Eisenhower’s ads as “proof that Madison Avenue believes it can sell candidates like toothpaste through the hypnotic repetition of a prescribed set of slogans.”
But not everyone agreed on what made an effective ad. Taking issue with Reeves, Tony Schwartz argued that the USP was a dead-end, because it led advertisers “to make claims for a product”—or candidate—“that are unreal.” The overselling of products, the implausible claims made for them, produced resistance and backlash in viewers. It was better, Schwartz maintained, to create messages that echoed viewers’ pre-existing experiences and thoughts. By “resonating,” Schwartz meant that ads shouldn’t try to convince buyers to want something new; they should convey that the advertised product embodies what they already want. In politics, analogously, the media adviser’s job wasn’t to package the candidate for the voter, but to “tie up the voter and deliver him to the candidate,” Schwartz said. “It is really the voter who is packaged by media, not the candidate.”
When Aaron Ehrlich placed his call to Schwartz in 1964, the political mood in Washington was one of buoyancy and optimism. Liberalism was at high tide. Most Americans favored doing more for blacks, the poor, the elderly, consumers, the environment, the cities, the schools—the heart of President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society agenda. And Johnson himself never looked so attractive. He had put to rest suspicions that he wasn’t the equal of the late John F. Kennedy; many Washington observers wondered if even Kennedy would have been able, as LBJ had, to pass a landmark civil rights bill. Even those trait of Johnson’s that were later scorned as shortcomings seemed at this moment like political assets: the drive to accomplish, the energy, the heedlessness of limits. Even his coarse Hill Country idiosyncrasies came off as winningly authentic.
Johnson was now running for election in his own right. His opponent was the right-wing Arizona senator Barry Goldwater, tribune of the Republican party’s conservative wing. To an intense band of these conservative followers, Goldwater was a rugged hero, a champion of small government and frontier individualism. But to many other Americans he seemed a zealot of the so-called lunatic fringe—doctrinaire on the issues and intemperate in disposition. Worse still, Goldwater’s ideological extremism and gunslinger persona made him prone to explosive remarks. “Let’s lob one into the men’s room of the Kremlin,” he said early in the campaign. Another time, he proposed using nuclear weapons in Vietnam as a defoliant. Goldwater further marginalized himself by voting against the Civil Rights Act and talking about making Social Security voluntary, which would effectively have ended it. Once, in venting his spleen toward Northeastern liberals, he griped, “Sometimes I think this country would be better off if we could just saw off the Eastern Seaboard and let it float out to sea.”
Goldwater also had the misfortune to run at a moment when Americans were developing new hopes that the fear of nuclear war that had shadowed them for nearly two decades might be lessening. The 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis made the imperative of avoiding nuclear war seem ever more urgent, while the test-ban treaty with the Soviet Union that was ratified in September 1963 made a rapprochement seem possible. In this context, Goldwater’s immoderate positions on the control, testing, and use of nuclear weapons were newly damaging. During the Republican primaries of 1964, New York governor Nelson Rockefeller, standard-bearer for the party’s liberals and moderates, attacked the Arizona senator with mailings that asked, “Who Do You Want in the Room with the H-Bomb Button?” Goldwater’s unreliability became a recurring theme in the media. But the senator remained unrepentant. “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice,” he said, famously, at the Republican convention. His followers adopted the slogan, “In your heart, you know he’s right.” Democrats offered a riposte: “In your guts, you know he’s nuts.”
Goldwater may have been self-destructing, but Johnson was not one to leave things to chance. A team of campaign aides met regularly in the White House. Over the summer they devised a strategy that called for opening the fall with a “rip Goldwater” phase, to highlight the senator’s extremism, and then shifting to a statesmanlike phase that would paint Johnson as a strong, responsible leader. “Barry’s already got a rope around him, and he’s knotted it pretty firm,” LBJ told his team in August. “All you have to do is give a little tug. And while he’s fighting to keep standing, I’ll just sit right here and run the country.” The way to do it, Johnson aide George Reedy explained, was “to play that atom theme as heavy as we can.”
For help, Bill Moyers, then a key LBJ aide, turned to Doyle Dane Bernbach, the advertising firm that JFK had also been planning to use in the 1964 race. DDB had impressed Kennedy with its winsome ads for Volkswagen (“Think small”), which in their playful originality rebuked the hectoring hard-sell doctrines of Rosser Reeves. Besides, as DDB partner Bill Bernbach wrote to Moyers, “We are ardent Democrats who are deadly afraid of Goldwater.” Though negative campaign attacks were as old as the republic, Johnson, Moyers, and DDB would help make them a central feature of presidential candidates’ all-important television campaigns.
It was here that Aaron Ehrlich thought Schwartz could help. He had worked with the celebrated guru on an American Airlines campaign and wanted Schwartz to serve as a consultant on the LBJ account. But Schwartz, along with his other quirks, was an agoraphobic who hated to leave his apartment. So Ehrlich and his DDB colleagues trekked over to Hell’s Kitchen. There, the discussion turned to how they might capitalize on Goldwater’s loose talk about nukes. Schwartz had recently made an ad for the United Nations featuring his young nephew’s voice counting, followed by an adult voice counting backward from ten to zero, followed by an atomic explosion. “Young and old,” the narrator said. “Another world war means death to us all. Support the United Nations.” It isn’t clear whether Schwartz shared the ad with the DDB group, but he did play the Polaroid ad, in which his nephew also counted off numbers.
After the consultation, DDB developed a script for a commercial, which the White House quickly approved. Filming took place in Highbridge Park by the Harlem River in Upper Manhattan. Monique Corzilius, a three-year-old freckled child model from Pine Beach, New Jersey, stood in the untamed grasses and wildflowers. The wind had blown her auburn hair into a tangle, and the summer sun played upon her fair skin. She counted to ten as she plucked the petals from a flower—which, according to different sources, was either a dandelion, a black-eyed susan, or a daisy. Young Monique repeated the ritual for the cameras some 20 times. Within a few days, DDB put the spot together.
The final cut began quietly, with the girl counting the petals. As she reached nine, her voice was drowned out by a harsh, loud mission-control countdown, courtesy of Schwartz’s audio library. The camera froze and zoomed in on Corzilius’s eye—a device that was borrowed from the famous freeze-frame of a young boy that ended Francois Truffaut’s 400 Blows. In the ad, the close-up of the girl’s static eye dissolved into a mushroom cloud as Lyndon Johnson’s voice was heard, excerpted from a speech he had given in April: “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.” (It was a variation of a line from Auden’s “September 1, 1939.”) A newscaster-like narrator concluded: “Vote President Johnson on November 3rd. The stakes are too high to stay at home.”
True to Schwartz’s vision, the sound was as important to the ads effectiveness as the visuals. The shock that the viewer experiences with the nuclear bomb’s appearance stems not only from the image of the mushroom cloud (already something of a cliché) but also from the stark transition from the young girl’s high, innocent voice into the harsh mission-control countdown. (No one stopped to ask whether nuclear bombs are actually fired following the kind of countdown that accompanied outer-space rocket launches.) The announcer’s even-keeled, understated kicker provided a moment for the shock to sink in and resonate.
On August 20, Bill Bernbach brought a cut of the ad to the White House for a screening. Johnson was there, as were Moyers, Jack Valenti, and Richard Goodwin. When the lights went up, Bernbach looked to the clients for a judgment. Everyone was silent. Finally, Bill Moyers piped up. “It’s wonderful,” he said. “But it’s going to get us in a lot of trouble.”
The spot aired once, on Monday, September 7, on NBC, shortly before 10 p.m. The outcry came immediately. In New Jersey, Monique Corzilius’s parents were inundated with phone calls—and they were as surprised as anyone, since they had never been told the identity of the client. Many more callers phoned the White House, most of them angrily accusing the president of having crossed the lines of fair play. Johnson, who was hosting a small dinner with friends, summoned Moyers in. “What the hell do you mean putting on that ad that just ran?” he asked his aide, feigning ignorance for his guests. Moyers thought he heard a faint chuckle behind the alleged reproach.
Talk of the so-called Daisy ad consumed political circles the next day. The networks aired it on their nightly broadcasts. Time put the girl on its cover. Despite the implicit criticism, the exposure gave the Johnson campaign millions of new viewers, at no extra cost. When journalists criticized the spot, moreover, campaign aides, in a show of false magnanimity, agreed to pull it to avoid even the semblance of unfairness, knowing the damage was done.
Besides, Johnson’s aides could note that the ad never mentioned Goldwater. In keeping with Schwartz’s theories, it only evoked the fears about Goldwater’s bellicosity that had been in the air for months. The ad didn’t seek to persuade; it aimed to resonate. “It was comparable to a person going to a psychiatrist and seeing dirty pictures in a Rorschach pattern,” Schwartz said. “This mistrust was not in the Daisy spot. It was in the people who viewed the commercial.” Meanwhile, to keep the “atom theme” alive without rerunning the Daisy ad, Moyers reportedly persuaded the producers of the movie Fail Safe, made from Eugene Burdick’s novel about a nuclear crisis, to release it before the election.
Goldwater’s team reacted by playing into Johnson’s hands. In 1952, after Eisenhower’s ads ran, Democrat Adlai Stevenson responded by essentially crying foul: His aide George Ball feebly attacked Eisenhower’s handlers for trying to “sell an inadequate ticket to the American people in precisely the way they sell soap, ammoniated toothpaste, hair tonic, or bubble gum.” The tactic failed; Ike’s spots might not have been as elevated as Stevenson’s rhetoric, but they were hardly beyond the pale. Similarly, Goldwater erred by arguing that LBJ’s ad was somehow illegitimate.
Republican National Committee chairman Dean Burch filed a complaint with the Fair Campaign Practices Committee, a private body that promoted a code of campaign ethics. On Capitol Hill, Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen urged the National Association of Broadcasters to condemn the commercial, while House Minority Leader Charlie Halleck railed on the House floor against “this kind of play on emotions, this appeal to fear.” Goldwater himself denounced the ad at a rally in Indianapolis: “The homes of America are horrified and the intelligence of Americans is insulted by weird television advertising by which this administration threatens the end of the world unless all-wise Lyndon is given the nation for his very own.”
By pressing the issue, Goldwater’s men kept their candidate’s nuclear record in the headlines. One poll now showed that a majority believed “Barry Goldwater would get America into a war.” Johnson’s team continued to hammer away at Goldwater’s extremism: A new ad quoted Goldwater’s liberal-bashing line about cutting off the Eastern Seaboard; another showed a pair of hands ripping up a Social Security card; a third, in the spirit of “Daisy,” featured a girl licking an ice cream cone as a narrator spoke of Goldwater’s support for atmospheric nuclear testing.
On Election Day, Goldwater carried only his home state of Arizona and five states of the Deep South. Voters gave LBJ the largest majorities in Congress since Franklin Roosevelt’s heyday—a clear path for passing his Great Society agenda. Valenti started to develop “carefully prepared programs of public imagery,” as he told the president, “to establish the real and enduring Lyndon Johnson.”
Most Americans were pleased. Eager to fulfill Johnson’s vision of a Great Society, they had reason to believe that they had avoided electing a headstrong, rigid anti-Communist who would embroil them in a deadly and distracting war.
Reprinted from Republic of Spin: An Inside History of the American Presidency with the permission of the author and the publisher, W.W. Norton.
David Greenberg is a historian of American politics and a professor of history and of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University. A columnist for Politico, he is also the author of Nixon’s Shadow: The History of an Image.