Fifty years ago on Sunday, politics was changed forever.
It begins quietly, with a little girl. She’s in a field somewhere, and she has long, straight hair, and big eyes. She can be no more than three or four years old.
She’s holding a daisy. In a child’s singsong voice, she counts the petals as she removes them. “One, two, three, four, five,” she says, softly.
She stops and looks up, frightened. A man’s echoing voice starts to count. As he does, the camera moves closer. “Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four,” he says, and all that can be seen are the child’s eyes, which are afraid. The shot moves into the dark centre of her eye.
Then there is an explosion — a huge, lingering explosion — and the child’s iris is filled with a grainy image of an atomic bomb being detonated. As the mushroom cloud reaches upward, another voice is heard: the voice of Lyndon B. Johnson, president of the United States.
“These are the stakes,” he says in his Texas twang. “To make a world in which all of God’s children can live, or to go into the dark.” Pause. “We must either love each other, or we must die.”
The screen goes black, and a few words appear in white: “Vote for President Johnson on November 3.” Then the last voice-over: “Vote for President Johnson on November 3. The stakes are too high for you to stay home.”
Ran once, that ad did, on September 7, 1964. But everyone involved modern politics agrees: it changed everything.
Some say the ‘Daisy’ ad represented the start of attack ads. But it’s wrong to suggest that ‘Daisy’ is akin to the despicable Jean Chrétien “face” ad, produced, in part, by Toronto mayoralty candidate John Tory. That was just a vicious, empty-headed attack on the Liberal leader’s facial paralysis, and had nothing to do with policy. ‘Daisy,’ on the other hand, did not mention once the name of President Johnson’s opponent, but it was all about a policy: nuclear deterrence.
It led to Johnson’s re-election, and the evisceration at the polls of Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, whose name was not mentioned once in the ad. And, as noted, it changed politics.
As the fiftieth anniversary of ‘Daisy’ is marked – about whom, full disclosure, I named my own consulting firm! – it is hard not to wonder what ‘Daisy’ equivalent the Conservative Party wishes to unleash on Liberal leader Justin Trudeau.
Since he became Liberal leader in April 2013, the Harper Cons have produced a barrage of attack ads about Trudeau. None have had a measureable effect. In almost every poll taken since April 2013, Trudeau has enjoyed a significant lead.
‘Daisy’ worked, its creator Tony Schwartz later told me, because it “surfaced” pre-existing emotions about Goldwater. It gave visual expression to what they already felt.
So what, then, can the Conservatives do to avoid being wiped out by Trudeau? The same polls that show him ahead also show Canadians – including Liberal voters – have some misgivings about his experience and judgment. Could a Daisy-style ad “surface” those worries, and turn the tide against the Grits?
Maybe. Perhaps. But the fact is that Harper has been highlighting Trudeau’s relative inexperience and judgment for months – in ads, in speeches, in mailings, in every scrum. None of it has worked.
‘Daisy’ worked because it evoked profound emotions about a matter of life and death. Can Harper persuade skeptical Canadians that Trudeau’s judgment is a matter of life and death, too?
It’s unlikely. So, as the Conservatives continue frantically casting about for their own ‘Daisy,’ one thing cannot be denied:
Time is running out.