Media producer and consultant Tony Schwartz has died at the age of 84. He is best known as the creator of the “Daisy” ad for the Lyndon Johnson re-election campaign in 1964, an ad that only ran once, but helped create, or at least re-invent, the genre of negative politial advertising.
It’s not like it changed the campaign; Johnson crushed Barry Goldwater that year and would have done so with or without the ad. But it rejiggered the rules for political advertising: fear-mongering, use of shocking stock footage, deep-voiced narration, and deliberate avoidance of mentioning issues or even the opponent’s name. The ad was clearly saying that if you don’t vote Johnson you and your children will die in a nuclear blast, but when the Goldwater campaign pushed back against this unfair characterization, the Johnson campaign had plausible deniability: what do you mean? Nobody mentioned you in the ad. We are living in Tony Schwartz’s world.
Another ad from that same campaign uses the now-common tactic of associating your opponent with unsavoury people or groups who have endorsed him. However, I don’t find that as objectionable. It’s unfair, but it’s the kind of unfairness that is par for the course and expected in politics. An ad like this has a built-in response, and all politicians are prepared to give a response to that kind of criticism. The problem with the Daisy Ad is that it’s specifically designed to deny the possibility of a response from the other side, because it has nothing to do with issues or even politics. It’s just a minute’s worth of “being blown up is bad.”