The Big Bang of Attack Ads

It all started with a "Big Bang" on Monday evening September 7, 1964.

The first political TV spot for a president created by an ad agency, Doyle Dane Bernbach, aired that evening on NBC's Monday Night at the Movies. And much like the probable beginning of the Universe, the background noise of that one ad which made just one sixty second appearance is still very much in evidence in how political consultants work to create a negative impression of opposing candidates.

The creator of this famous TV spot dubbed DAISY, Tony Schwartz, died on June 15th. Daisy was the first and most successful attempt to use the power of sight, sound and motion to swing an election and in 1964, helped create a landside victory for Lyndon Johnson over his opponent Barry Goldwater. Daisy worked on several levels, which have rarely, if ever, been equaled since. It is a masterpiece of the theme "less is more." A theme that marketers of every stripe, both political and commercial, should take serious note of and try to emulate today.

The spot starts with a little girl picking daisies in a meadow and counting aloud as she plucks each petal. She mixes up her numbers, which brilliantly reinforces the innocence of a small child. Then a man's voice is heard counting down from ten. It's official sounding -- like something right out of the Pentagon War Room. As the countdown proceeds the camera zooms in on the little girl's face, and then her eye and finally from her eye the image of an atomic blast appears and fills the screen. Next you heard President Johnson quote several lines taken form a W.H. Auden poem about how "we must love each other or surely we will die." And finally a professional voice over announces to vote for President Johnson on November 3rd. "The stakes are too high to do anything else."

For those of you not alive at the time or old enough to remember, Johnson's opponent, Barry Goldwater, was a right wing hawk to the extreme and was happy to be quoted on a regular basis that we "should nuke Vietnam" nuke China" and "lob a nuke into the men's room in the Kremlin." It really didn't take a ballistic missile expert to figure out the best way to beat Goldwater was to remind people of his well-known and seemingly cavalier attitude toward nuclear war. As mentioned above, Daisy ran just one time. Take note that Goldwater was never mentioned by name in the spot. Immediately after the spot ran the Goldwater camp called NBC and demanded it pull the ad. They did, but not before alerting the general press and rival TV networks of the Goldwater reaction. And thus, Daisy became front page news for weeks including an article in TIME and a picture on the September 14th cover -- at a time when over twenty million people read TIME religiously each week. Talk about viral marketing long before the term was invented. After Daisy, Goldwater never had a remote chance of winning the election. The only question that concerned President Johnson was how big would his landside and mandate be for his first full term after taking over a year earlier upon the tragic murder of President Kennedy.

Was Daisy the first negative political TV spot? Yes. Was it the most effective of all time? Yes. Have ad experts since followed the rules and methods Tony Schwartz employed so brilliantly along with his production team? No. In memory of Mr. Schwartz, I think it is high time we understand that Daisy was not about being negative but rather truthful. And that the truth when used correctly is the most powerful weapon a candidate has in depicting the fault lines of their opponent.

I think Tony Schwartz would agree with these rules for creating powerful and effective political advertising.

1. Focus in on the one major issue that your opponent is dead wrong about and make that the theme of your TV and radio advertising.

2. Remember that the most powerful device for delivering a message into a consumer's mind for keeps is the use of sound with unique cadence, and inflection - either by itself on the radio or to make a visual image an unforgettable, powerful image.

3. Never "tell the whole story." Let the consumer's mind pick up cues and do the work of "connecting the dots."

4. Never mention your opponent by name. (Henry Clay was the first presidential contender to learn this fact the hard way in 1844, when he lost to James Polk in what should have been a landslide for Clay--see my book Powerlines for details).

5. Say as little as possible at the close of a spot. Use a few well-chosen words to make it crystal clear what is at stake if you do not win.

We now finally have two candidates for the upcoming election. Both have plenty of political ammo for using the rules above and creating advertising that could turn the election in their favor. Another spot with the modern day impact of Daisy? Entirely possible. But only if we pay our respects to the man who started it all that one Monday night forty-four years ago this September.

Steve Cone, author of
POWERLINES: Words That Sell Brands, Grip Fans, and Sometimes Change History