In 1964, at the height of the Cold War, Lyndon B. Johnson found himself running for re-election to the presidency against Republican candidate Barry Goldwater. Goldwater, a WW2 veteran turned US Senator from Arizona, was branded as a radical by the Democrats for his beliefs in small government and apparent advocacy of using nuclear weapons.
To make Goldwater seem even more terrifying to the American public, the Democrats put together the famous "Daisy" ad – also known as the "Daisy Girl" ad and the "Peace, Little Girl" ad. This single ad not only signaled defeat for Goldwater but also changed political campaign tactics forever.
Lyndon B. Johnson was a strange one. When your post-presidency calling cards are your obsession with your presidential private parts and initiating the history of attack ads, "strange" seems like a fair descriptor.
Two-year-old Monique Corzilius earned $105 for her portrayal of "Daisy," the young girl who tried to count as she pulled petals off a daisy in a field. Corzilius couldn't have known that her role would be one of the most controversial in political ad history, and her parents weren't given a copy of the script – so they didn't know either. Previously, Corzilius had been in a print ad for Lipton Soup, and her parents assumed this commercial would be a similar product. They were wrong.
During filming, Corzilius struggled to count to 10, coming up with number combinations like "1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 9 and 7, 7, 6, 8, 14." The director gave up and figured the mistake was endearing.
"Daisy" counted her petals until they were all gone. After she was done, the camera began to zoom in on "Daisy's" iris while a man counted down from 10. Then, a mushroom cloud flashed in the girl's eye – the sign of a nuclear bomb explosion – and an ominous voiceover from Lyndon B. Johnson said:
"These are the stakes: to make a world in which all of God's children can live, or go into the dark. We must either love each other or we must die."
From there, the commercial cut to a black screen that had text that read: "Vote for President Johnson on November 3."
The ad made its point without ever mentioning President Johnson's opponent, Barry Goldwater. The goal of the ad was to make Goldwater seem as though he had an "itchy trigger finger" and would take the nation to nuclear war if he was elected.
Goldwater knew that nuclear weapons were an issue and didn't help his case any with his comments about nuclear weapons. In March 1964, Goldwater indicated that he would use nuclear weapons in Vietnam to decrease foliage and destroy supply lines from China into North Vietnam. He also asserted that it was up to him to
"educate the American people to lose some of their fear of the word 'nuclear.' When you say 'nuclear,' all the American people see is a mushroom cloud. Now a nuclear weapon in political terms may be a mushroom cloud. But for military purposes, it's just enough firepower to get the job done."
The "Daisy" ad aired on September 7, 1964. It only aired that one evening, at about 10 pm. The ad lasted only a minute and was only broadcast on one network, NBC. It was one of the most powerful minutes to air on national television.
Most importantly, the ad worked. People were immediately afraid of Goldwater, concerned that a vote for him would result in nuclear destruction.