Defeated by a Daisy: Analyzing Political Ads
It appeared on television only once, but it is one of the most famous political ads in U.S. history.
A little girl pulls the petals off of a daisy and counts them. The camera zooms in and the little girl is replaced by a nuclear explosion. The distinctive but unidentified voice of Lyndon Johnson says: “These are the stakes. To make a world in which all of God’s children can live or to go into the dark. We must either love each other or we must die.” A male announcer adds, “Vote for President Johnson on November 3. The stakes are too high for you to stay home.”
Defeated by a Daisy
In 1964, Barry Goldwater, the Republican senator from Arizona, challenged Lyndon Johnson, the Democratic incumbent. (Johnson as Vice President had succeeded to the presidency after the assassination of John F. Kennedy in November 1963.)
Goldwater did not have an easy relationship with the news media, who often characterized him as an extremist. In those Cold War days, the threat of nuclear war was real. Many people feared that a President Goldwater might bring the nation to the brink of nuclear disaster.
Johnson successfully exploited these fears during his campaign. The daisy commercial—essentially an attack ad—was only a small part of the campaign’s advertising, but it helped keep Johnson in the White House.
The Power of Persuasion
The purpose of all advertising is to persuade people to act in a certain way. During an election year, political advertising has to reach a mass of undifferentiated voters. Some have made up their minds, others have not. It is difficult to target such a group, so political ads often seek to persuade by playing to emotions rather than to issues.
The Medium Is the Message
The medium in which an ad appears has a lot to do with its success. Television ads can exploit the power of visuals with sound. Radio ads have to rely on the human voice and sound effects. Ads seen on living room televisions or heard on car radios can create a sense of intimacy. Successful advertisers use this to try to establish a bond with audiences.
Print ads can range from small magazine blurbs to massive billboards. These ads may be stationary or move from place to place if installed on buses or rolling billboards. No matter how an ad is deployed, persuading the most people to act a certain way is the advertiser’s main goal.
Is This Ad Successful?
Ask students to identify a current political ad on radio, television, or the Internet. Use these questions to analyze the ad:
- Who sponsored the ad? Most ads end with the candidate’s verbal support: “My name is Joe Jones and I approve this message.”
- At what time of day did the ad appear? Advertisers know that audiences vary based on time of day. Advertising during commuting times and in the evening reaches more people, but it’s also more expensive.
- Identify the ad’s main message.
- Distinguish between fact and opinion. Is the ad based on facts and data, or opinions? Bias in political ads is expected and should be fairly clear. Does the ad attempt to present itself as unbiased?
- Describe the ad’s technique. Pay attention to the images, music, and the narrator’s voice. How might these effects persuade the audience?
- Evaluate the ad’s success. Was the ad effective and persuasive? What were its strengths? Could the ad be improved?
Call a Consultant
Group students and tell them that they will analyze ads as political consultants. Have them collect a variety of political advertising and analyze these ads based on the questions above. Question #2 will have less relevance for web-based ads, but a good consultant will take that into consideration.
Have the consultant groups present their analyses to the class. They should walk through their critique using the above questions. They may also suggest ways to improve a candidate’s advertising.
Lights! Camera! Action!
Have your students make their own political ads. First, use the storyboard template below to map out the ad. A group of students could then rehearse the finished ad and present it to the class.
Students with access to digital cameras and editing software could film the presentation and edit it into a political commercial. Another option is to illustrate the scenes for the ad, scan the illustrations, and edit them into a computer presentation.
More on Political Ad Analysis
The Art of the Negative Ad (New York Magazine)