Tuesday, September 11, 2007

When the Stakes Are Life and Death, Your Message Had Better Be Tough

Via Boing Boing, here is a fascinating history of the most controversial--and arguably the most effective--political commercial in history: the 1964 "daisy" ad used by Lyndon Johnson to brand Barry Goldwater as a dangerous kook. If you've never seen the ad (which may be the case with some of our--ahem--younger readers), follow the link and click on the "Daisy: Video" line to watch it; I think it is still chilling after all these years, even with the original Cold War context now ancient history.

One of the beautiful things about this ad was the shrill response it evoked from Republicans around the country--an overreaction that most observers felt helped Johnson and the Democrats. As Bill Moyers, one of LBJ's strategists, wrote in a memo to the president:

It [the ad] caused [Goldwater's] people to start defending him right away. Yesterday [Republican National Committee Chairman] Burch said: "This ad implies that Senator Goldwater is a reckless man and Lyndon Johnson is a careful man." Well, that's exactly what we wanted to imply. And we also hoped someone around Goldwater would say it, not us. They did. Yesterday was spent in trying to show that Goldwater isn't reckless.
And the ad evidently had a real impact on public opinion, both directly and indirectly:
A Harris Poll taken a week after the ad first aired reported that 53% of women and 45% of men believed that Goldwater would involve the United States in a war. The Republican overreaction to the spot and the resulting publicity (the Daisy girl appeared on the cover of Time magazine's September 25, 1964 "Nuclear" issue) almost certainly influenced the polling numbers. Author Theodore H. White summed up the GOP misstep in his election postmortem "The Making of the President 1964": ". . . the shriek of Republican indignation fastened the bomb message on them more tightly than any calculation could have expected."
Furthermore, because of the controversy, the ad--which ran just once as a paid commercial--got played many more times for free on news programs, much like the Republican "swift boat" ads in 2004. Interesting to see that strategy pioneered by tough, assertive Democrats lo these many years ago.
(The sad irony of course is that Johnson, who won the 1964 election in a landslide partly by effectively branding Goldwater as a warmonger, soon lied the US into a needless, self-destructive war in Vietnam--the first of four presidents in my lifetime who clearly deserved impeachment.)

I would love to see Democratic strategists for 2008 go to school on Moyers, Tony Schwartz, Sid Myers, Bill Bernbach, and the other strategists who were responsible for the daisy ad. It's long past time for us to promulgate messages that are as truthfully tough as that. And if the Republicans nominate Rudy Giuliani--a dangerous kook if there ever was one--they are frankly asking for it.

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