The black-and-white advertisement is all innocence in its beginnings. A freckled-faced girl stands in a field, plucking the petals from a daisy. "One, two, three, four, five, seven, six, six," she says, sweetly muddling the countdown.
Countdowns can be ominous, as the advertisement quickly reminds. The camera zooms in for a close-up as a countdown begins of another kind. Reflected in the little girl's eye, a bomb is detonated.
The stark narration: "We must either love each other, or we must die."
The closing message: "Vote for President Johnson on November 3. The stakes are too high for you to stay home."
Tony Schwartz, the adman behind the so-called "Daisy" or "Little Girl - Countdown" ad, died in June, prodding memories with reminders that "Daisy" was one of the earliest examples of an attack ad, an art that is all but peculiar to political campaigns.
"Daisy" aired once. Memories playing their usual trickery, and this being the dawn of another election, one wonders: What was the effect of "Daisy," and do negative political ads work?
In Packaging the Presidency, Kathleen Hall Jamieson probes the back story of what she calls "arguably the most controversial ad in the history of political broadcasting." Bill Moyers, an aide to President Johnson, explains to the author that the prospect of Republican opponent Barry Goldwater "trying to shed himself of all of the convictions, beliefs, images and the extremism that had surrounded him all of his career" ignited the plan to open the 1964 campaign with anti-Goldwater advertising. It was Moyers who took the president's message to the hyper-creative ad shop, Doyle Dane Bernbach.
Here's Moyers: "They came back with the Daisy ad, which in one fell swoop seemed to do what it would have taken dozens of other ads and speeches and literature to do. That was to remind people that Barry Goldwater had spoken loosely and lightly and recklessly about the overarching issue of nuclear power."
The ad ignited a media firestorm and was pulled by the Johnson campaign. Ms. Hall Jamieson quotes President Johnson: "I guess it did what we Goddamn set out to do."
But did it?
Robert Johnston is research director of the National Annenberg Election Survey at the University of Pennsylvania and some-time coauthor with Professor Hall Jamieson, who chairs the Annenberg Public Policy Centre.
"When you actually try to do systematic analyses across a range of elections or a range of circumstances, with some kind of control, it's pretty hard to construct an argument that negative advertising routinely works or routinely doesn't work," says Prof. Johnston. "On average it seems to be a wash."
Given the corrosive tone of negative advertising, that seems surprising. "There's plenty of stuff out there to revile, plenty of ads that turn your stomach," he says. "But that's not the same thing as demonstrating they actually had an effect."
Turning his thoughts to "Daisy" in particular, he laughs. "Lyndon Johnson didn't need the Daisy ad to win the 1964 election," he says, recalling the profound swelling of national emotion in the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination; that a "historical liberal hour for policy" had arrived in the nation; and that the Republicans had shot themselves in the foot by nominating an extremist candidate. "The Daisy ad was just sort of froth on the surface, more symptom than cause of anything."
This is not to say that negative ads are froth in terms of content. Prof. Johnston cites the work of John Geer, a professor of political science at Vanderbilt University. "John does make a case, which I find persuasive, that in the end negative advertising is just more informative."
He spins to the carbon tax and the looming Canadian election. "My guess is the electorate will know more that is factually correct about the carbon tax at the end rather than the beginning and much of this will be learned through advertising."
In the realm of negative ads, the Canadian electorate cannot forget the attack by the Progressive Conservatives on Jean Chrétien in the fall of 1993, highlighting the distortion of the future prime minister's mouth. "It was a nasty ad," says Prof. Johnston. "But we don't know whether it went too far in the sense of creating a backlash in the electorate."
"A lot of journalists still think we ... ginned up the outcry," says Peter Donolo, director of communications in the Prime Minister's Office in the Chrétien years. "I wish we were that smart. It wasn't necessary."
But what was the ad's actual effect? Says Prof. Johnston: "The ad ran at the point at which Canadians at large were waking up to the fact that the Conservatives really were toast."
Greg Lyle, managing director at Innovative Research Group Inc., was working at Decima at the time of the '93 campaign. As such he watched the nightly tracking as the ads aired. "The evidence from the research was actually that the ad was working, but the media spin was so bad that they couldn't keep it on," he says.
The ad remains a talking point. "There are still people to this day who say the problem there wasn't that they ran the ad, but that they pulled it," says Peter Donolo.
Prof. Johnston is unmoved. "What you can see are faint effects," he says. "You can say something repeatedly negative about the other side and, yes, that diminishes voters' opinions of the other side, but that's roughly compensated for by their diminished opinion of you."
Nor does he buy into the thesis that attack ads can demobilize an electorate. "There's no evidence whatsoever that it does," he says firmly.
From his perch in Pennsylvania, Prof. Johnston looks with interest upon the looming Canadian election. A Canadian, he is coauthor of Letting the People Decide: Dynamics of a Canadian Election, on the 1988 free trade election battle.
Does he think that the Chrétien ad might caution all parties to be less coarse in this next round of campaigning? "Gee, I don't think so," he says. "I don't think it's going to be very pretty. I think it's going to be ugly."