Columns » Jay Barth

1964 redux: The stakes are too high for you to stay at home


Lyndon Johnson's "Daisy" ad.
  • Lyndon Johnson's "Daisy" ad.

Based on my own experience, the Museum of the Moving Image's "The Living Room Candidate" can keep political geeks pacified for hours on end. That collection of campaign advertisements includes hundreds of presidential television spots dating back to 1952, when Dwight Eisenhower became the first national candidate to invest a chunk of his campaign spending on television ads. The most famous of the ads included in the collection (or infamous, depending on your point of view) is the 1964 "Daisy" ad, which was developed for Lyndon Johnson's general election campaign. In the ad — which scholars of both film and politics have analyzed in excruciating detail for a half-century — the image of a young girl counting petals pulled from a flower morphs into that of a mushroom cloud as a nuclear weapon goes off. The implicit object of the attack was GOP nominee Barry Goldwater, who had suggested that the nuclear bomb was "merely another weapon."

Johnson's campaign advertising strategy for 1964 — the first election cycle in which television ownership was nearly universal in the United States — was developed by Doyle Dane Bernbach, the innovative "Mad Men"-era advertising firm. The "Daisy" ad aired as a paid advertisement only once, but was repeated innumerable times for free in news coverage of the campaign. "The Living Room Candidate" also shows a variety of other ads developed by Doyle Dane Bernbach that are less known today, but were on the cutting edge of the times. With only a couple of exceptions, the ads for the Johnson/Humphrey ticket were attack ads that either employed Goldwater's own words — advocating that Social Security be made voluntary or wishing "we could just saw off the Eastern Seaboard and let it float off to sea") or criticisms of Goldwater by his fellow GOP partisans. The ads helped to cement the notions that Goldwater was well out of the political mainstream and lacked the temperament to be president.

On the day after Donald Trump became the presumptive presidential nominee of the GOP, Hillary Clinton's campaign changed the subject from its own loss to Bernie Sanders in Indiana's primary by rolling out ads that strongly echoed the Johnson/Humphrey ads from a half-century ago. In one of Clinton's web ads, "the most vulgar man to ever aspire to the presidency" is criticized by numerous fellow GOP partisans in colorful language, closing with Jeb Bush's diagnosis that "he needs therapy." Another web-based ad other uses Trump's own controversial statements as an indictment on his candidacy.

Every 1964 Johnson ad concluded with the tagline "Vote for President Johnson on November 3rd" and the voice-over "The stakes are too high for you to stay home." As the greatest risk to her candidacy is low turnout among voters who have turned out in strong numbers for President Obama and Bernie Sanders but lack enthusiasm for Clinton, an updated version of the messaging about Goldwater will also be the take-away of the messaging about Trump during a Clinton general election campaign.

Almost every ad between now and November run by the Clinton campaign and its allied groups will focus on motivating voters to the polls because of the fears of a Trump presidency. Obama's 2012 ad attacking Mitt Romney's business practices voiced over by Romney's off-key singing of "America the Beautiful" showed that a creative television advertisement still has a strong impact in an era of online content. Moreover, the Clinton campaign — staffed heavily by former Obama staff — will combine this time-tested technique with the power of targeted social media communications. Thus, Latino voters will be bombarded with ads featuring Trump's attacks on Mexicans, women will be targeted with ads featuring Trump's own words about women (Arkansas Democratic U.S. Senate hopeful Conner Eldridge's ad last week is a preview of such efforts). Parents concerned about issues of war and peace and Trump's own loose talk in apparent support of nuclear proliferation will have a 2016 version of the "Daisy" ad appear on their Facebook pages.

In a fast-changing political environment, political consultants often make a big mistake when they simply repeat the techniques of the past campaign. However, when running against an opponent like Trump, failing to employ the techniques that have worked so well for a half-century would be political malpractice.


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