With fears of nuclear annihilation looming large, Lyndon B. Johnson’s campaign team went for the jugular during the 1964 U.S. presidential race. In a minute-long television ad, a massive atomic blast blots out a young girl innocently plucking the petals of a daisy. The ad never mentioned Johnson’s opponent, Senator Barry Goldwater. But the implication was clear: A vote for Goldwater meant a vote for nuclear war.

Though he almost certainly would have won anyway, the so-called “Daisy” ad—officially known as “Peace, Little Girl”—helped Johnson secure a landslide electoral victory. It also ushered in an era of negative political advertising that has yet to abate and cemented the importance of TV to political campaigns.

“It was a style of political advertising that no one had ever tried before,” says Robert Mann, a professor of mass communication at Louisiana State University and author of Daisy Petals and Mushroom Clouds: LBJ, Barry Goldwater, and the Ad That Changed American Politics.

Before then, Mann explains, campaigns generally took a fact-based approach to ads, selling their candidates like they would a bar of soap. Many of Johnson’s ads, on the other hand, were pithy, short spots designed to generate a visceral emotional response.

Johnson’s campaign capitalized on what Mann describes as an “existential fear” that gripped the United States at the height of the Cold War, particularly in the wake of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. “Anxiety was pretty high to begin with,” Mann says. “But the missile crisis … really supercharged that.”

Goldwater Opposed Nuclear Disarmament

By 1964, the United States and Soviet Union had over 30,000 nuclear weapons between them, prompting fallout shelters to proliferate across America. Mann recalls crouching under his school desk during atomic bomb drills, worried about both sides being “armed to the teeth.” Surveys show he was far from alone in fearing nuclear war.

Yet, as Mann points out, a hawkish segment of the Republican Party tended to treat nuclear weapons cavalierly as part of a policy of standing firm against the Soviets. Goldwater, for example, called the atomic bomb “merely another weapon,” suggested using “low-yield” nuclear arms to defoliate forests and disrupt enemy supply lines in Vietnam, and joked about lobbing a nuclear missile into the men’s room of the Kremlin.

In addition, Goldwater opposed both nuclear disarmament and limitations to nuclear weapons testing. He thought the use of nuclear weapons shouldn’t always require presidential approval, and he mocked those who “would rather crawl on [their] knees to Moscow than die under an atom bomb.”

“Even people around Goldwater thought it was madness,” Mann says. Richard Nixon, for one, said, “Barry is on the record with statements that an opponent will use to cut his guts out.”

Indeed, during the 1964 race, Goldwater’s main Republican rivals painted him as untrustworthy on nuclear weapons. Though he secured the Republican nomination anyway, he did nothing to assuage his critics, famously declaring at the Republican National Convention that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.”

Johnson, who had become president the previous year following the John F. Kennedy assassination, was only too happy to pounce. His campaign relentlessly portrayed Goldwater as an unstable extremist, not just for his nuclear positions but also for opposing the Civil Rights Act and for stating that Social Security ought to be voluntary. In private, Johnson called Goldwater “nutty as a fruitcake.”

At the same time, Johnson saw himself “as this source of order and calm and composure” who would “keep everyone safe,” says Kent Germany, a professor of history at the University of South Carolina and editor of multiple volumes of LBJ’s recordings.

What Happens in the 'Daisy' Ad

To produce TV spots, Johnson’s campaign turned to Doyle Dane Bernbach, a New York advertising firm it had inherited from the Kennedy administration. For the “Daisy” ad, the firm filmed a three-year-old child actress standing in what appears to be a rural field, but was in actuality a Manhattan park.

After the girl plucks the petals of a daisy while counting them, the camera zooms in on her eye as a nuclear explosion erupts in the background. An LBJ voiceover then declares, “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.”

The spot aired only once, on September 7, 1964, during NBC’s “Monday Night at the Movies,” and was met with some criticism, including from the Goldwater campaign. Johnson himself told his secretary of labor that the ad may have gone overboard.

'Daisy' Ad Reaches 30-40 Americans

Ultimately, however, it proved effective at solidifying Goldwater’s image as a warmonger. “They were taking his position on nuclear war and encasing it in concrete,” Mann says. He adds that although polls didn’t change much after the ad ran, it preempted any chance of a Goldwater comeback.

Mann estimates that roughly 30 million or 40 million Americans saw the “Daisy” ad the first time and that, thanks to replays on news broadcasts, upwards of 100 million Americans had viewed it by the end of the week. “You could penetrate the market in one showing in those days,” Mann says, pointing out that there were only three TV channels. Today, he adds, “you’d have to show it 1,000 times.”

Doyle Dane Bernbach produced several other ads for Johnson as well, including one featuring a little girl licking an ice cream cone as a female voiceover states: “Now, children should have lots of vitamin A and calcium, but they shouldn’t have any strontium-90 or cesium-137.” The voiceover further proclaims that “there’s a man who wants to be president of the United States … [and] he wants to go on testing more bombs,” a reference to Goldwater’s vote against the 1963 Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which barred nuclear weapons testing in the atmosphere, in outer space and underwater.

A third nuclear-related ad, featuring a pregnant woman and her daughter, tacitly warned of the risks of birth defects from radioactive fallout, but was ultimately deemed too controversial to air at the time.

LBJ Wins Election

In the end, Johnson succeeded in peeling off many moderate Republican voters and holding together the Democratic Party’s so-called New Deal coalition. He won the election in a blowout, securing 61 percent of the popular vote and losing only Goldwater’s home state of Arizona and five states in the South.

The Democrats also gained seats in Congress, giving Johnson a mandate to push forward with his war on poverty and the rest of his domestic agenda, collectively known as the Great Society. “You have a much-transformed Congress … that makes the Great Society possible,” Germany says, though he notes that “the momentum that’s there in ’64 and ’65 dissipates pretty rapidly” as the Vietnam War heats up.

Sympathy generated from the JFK assassination, not the nuclear ads, was “probably the single most important issue in the massive Johnson landslide,” Germany says.

Nonetheless, the memorable “Daisy” ad came to define the race, in addition to paving the way for myriad political attack ads to come. Mann, for his part, believes the spot was fair. “To a degree [Goldwater] was cheerleading for a nuclear war,” Mann says. “And I think that’s just monstrously reckless.”