Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Mother of All Scare Commercials

It ran only once 47 years ago, but a one-minute effort for LBJ’s 1964 reelection campaign was still being parsed yesterday at a college symposium as “the most negative political ad in American history.”

During the network airing of a Hollywood biblical epic back then, amid cheery product pitches, suddenly there was the image of a little girl pulling petals from a daisy and counting erratically, to be replaced by a nuclear countdown as the camera zoomed in on her eye, froze and cut to a mushroom cloud explosion with Lyndon Johnson intoning the warning that the election stakes are “we must love each other or die.”

The commercial played off Barry Goldwater’s defense of extremism and offhand suggestion about defoliating Vietnam with nuclear weapons but never mentioned his name. Yet the message was clear: Vote for LBJ or die.

It never ran again but didn’t have to. Coming two years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, American voters were highly sensitive to the dangers of nuclear war and susceptible to the suggestion that a steady hand in the White House was crucial.

The campaign commercials are starting again now, and they doubtlessly will be tough and bitter, but there is no way to raise the stakes any higher. This is a time of fear and outrage, but no one can claim our physical survival is at stake.

The daisy commercial was produced by Doyle Dane Bernbach, an upstart agency back then, and I was on a committee with Bill Bernbach as he created an ad two years earlier to support a nuclear test ban treaty with the Soviet Union.

Dr. Benjamin Spock, the famous baby doctor, was on the committee, too. He hated ads and had threatened to sue his publisher for trying to put them in his paperback child-care book. Nonetheless, he posed for a Bernbach ad that showed him towering over a little girl with the headline “Dr. Spock is Worried” about the dangers of nuclear fallout that ran in 700 newspapers.

The treaty was signed and approved by the Senate but, after JFK’s assassination, there was still enough American anxiety for the once-seen daisy commercial to become a classic.

Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign will no doubt emphasize hope and renewal again but, especially with all the new media available, there will still be a big role for the use of fear on both sides. Let the little horror movies begin.

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