The Ad that Changed American Politics

Book review of Daisy Petals and Mushroom Clouds: LBJ, Barry Goldwater, and the Ad That Changed American Politics: The Nuclear Option


Enter Doyle Dane Bernbach (DDB), a small New York ad firm best known for its spots selling the Volkswagen Beetle. DDB had radical plans for political advertising, which previously had consisted mostly of candidates buying blocks of air time to sit behind a desk and deliver a speech for 30 minutes. This was as scintillating as it sounds: In 1952, one disgruntled viewer sent a telegram to Adlai Stevenson that read "I like Ike and I love Lucy. Drop dead." That same year, Eisenhower did a ground-breaking series of television ads in which he answered questions from "regular" Americans. Although the former general found the ads humiliating, they were an enormous success.

DDB had come to the attention of the Johnson campaign by way of the young aides Lloyd Wright and Bill Moyers, and discovered a president whose own approach to advertising was blunt: "Everybody worries about war and peace. Everything else is chickens—."


Mr. Mann describes the ad and its creation in brilliant detail. He finds the sound man who pioneered both the use of real children's voices and the disembodied voice of a countdown. The ad itself, is a masterpiece of suspense. Never does it mention Goldwater. Never does it claim a candidate will start a nuclear war. But it instantly ended Goldwater's campaign.

The ad only aired once, a strategy that Mr. Mann concludes was a masterstroke. The specter of nuclear holocaust was terrifying. But if the ad had been repeated, audiences would have grown inured to the threat, a psychological effect called habituation. And Goldwater managed to keep getting in his own way. On September 18, he delivered a half-hour televised speech responding to the ad, giving it an extra radioactive half-life.

Comment: Amazing that it only was aired once! Wiki article

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