From Flower Power to Big Bird: Electing a president in the media age

Abigail Perkiss

In the months before the 2012 presidential election, Americans have experienced a deluge of political campaign ads.  These messages make their way to voters through social media, the web, and print formats, but it is still the television ad that offers the biggest impact.

According the Museum of the Moving Image, which chronicles the TV advertisements of every presidential election since 1952, “in a media-saturated environment… the television commercial remains the one area where presidential candidates have complete control over their images.” These ads seek to inspire hope and confidence, fear and doubt; and when successful, they transform political platforms into the emotional responses that bring voters to the polls.

In 1964, Lyndon Johnson’s reelection campaign produced the “Daisy” ad.  Designed to play on comments made by republican candidate Barry Goldwater about the possibility of using nuclear weapons in Vietnam, the spot began in a peaceful meadow, where a young girl stood counting the petals of a flower (a dandelion, in fact, despite the ad’s famous name). When she reached ‘nine,’ an ominous countdown commenced. The camera zoomed in on the girls face and into the black of her eye as she looked to the sky, and when the countdown reached ‘zero,’ the shot cut to a mushroom cloud exploding across the screen.  Over it, a voice warned, “The stakes are too high. To make a world in which all God’s children can live, or to go into the dark. We must either love each other or we must die.”

“Vote for President Johnson on November 3,” the ad continued.  “The stakes are too high for you to stay home.”

The commercial aired only once, on September 7, 1964, before it was pulled, but the images were replayed on nightly news shows across the country.  Though its role in Johnson’s defeat of Goldwater is difficult to quantify, the “Daisy” ad has been credited as one of the first presidential campaign ads to employ fear to galvanize voters.

Twenty years later, Ronald Reagan’s team aired the “Prouder, Stronger, Better” spot. The ad presented a montage of peaceful, wholesome images of Americans: men and women going to work, families purchasing new homes, young couples celebrating weddings, and people across generations raising the flag.  Through each scene, a gentle voice spoke of the national growth and improvement over the previous four years:

“It’s morning again in America.  Today more men and women will go to work than ever before in our country’s history.  With interest rates at about half the record highs of 1980, nearly 2,000 families today will buy new homes, more than at any time in the past four years.  This afternoon 6,500 young men and women will be married, and with inflation at less than half of what it was just four years ago, they can look forward with confidence to the future.  It’s morning again in America, and under the leadership of President Reagan, our country is prouder and stronger and better. Why would we ever want to return to where we were less than four short years ago?”

The ad evoked a sense of patriotism and traditionalism; under the direction of Ronald Reagan, it said, the nation was moving forward by returning to its former glory.

From the fear in the “Daisy” ad to the optimism in “Prouder, Stronger, Better,” presidential campaign ads have become powerful tools through which candidates evoke the most visceral elements of the human experience. They have transcended substantive politics, and in doing so have worked to give Americans an emotional stake in the outcome of each election.

Abigail Perkiss is an assistant professor of history at Kean University in Union, New Jersey, and a fellow at the Kean University Center for History, Politics and Policy.

For more on the history of televised presidential campaign ads, visit

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