Magazine article Humanities

Low Blows and High Rhetoric

Magazine article Humanities

Low Blows and High Rhetoric

Article excerpt

As the camera moves in closer and closer on the girl's face, an atomic bomb explodes and we see a reflection of a mushroom cloud in the child's eyes. The Television screen fills with the image of a little girl picking off and counting the petals of a daisy. In the background another voice counts down "Ten ... nine .... eight ...." As the camera moves in closer and closer on the girl's face, an atomic bomb explodes and we see a reflection of a mushroom cloud in the child's eyes.

We then hear Lyndon Johnson's somber voice declaring, "These are the stakes. To have a world in which all of God's children can live or go into the darkness. We must either love each other or die." The announcer continues, "Vote for Lyndon Johnson. The stakes are too high for you to stay home."

The "Daisy Girl" television commercial of the 1964 presidential campaign is one of thousands being preserved, with NEH help, in the Political Commerical Archive at the University of Oklahoma. "The importance of preserving these materials for future study cannot be overestimated, as these tapes and films serve as landmarks in the visual history of our political system," says Lynda Kaid, director of the university's Political Communication Center.

The "Daisy Girl" remains one of the most controversial political ads in history. Although the Republican presidential candidate, Senator Barry Goldwater, is never mentioned by name, and implication that he would be willing to use nuclear weapons caused such an uproar that the commerical was show only once. "Both Republicans and Democrats requested the ad's withdrawal," says Kaid. "It was considered a low blow because of its use of a child and its emotional tone."

Goldwater himself never directly responded, but other Republicans did, including President Dwight Eisenhower and then-actor Ronald Reagan.

"Johnson continued to use a number of these kinds of spots, capitalizing on the fear technique, which struck a responsive chord in voters," says Kaid, who studies the role of mass communication in the political system. "What the ad clearly does is demonstrate the power of television, the visual impact it has to make an emotional argument, and the effectiveness of the format in political campaigns."

The Political Commercial Archive houses more than fifty-five thousand film, audio, and videotape recordings of commercials aired between 1936 and the present. It has been called the "Louvre and the Fort Knox of political commercials" by the American Association of Political Consultants. Over 65 percent of the total holdings, and over 85 percent of the film holdings, are not available elsewhere.

The commercials range from the emotional to the outrageous. There is a candidate whose nose, like Pinocchio's when he lied, gets larger and larger as he speaks. A cow talks about a candidate's stand on farm issues; a puppet and a fish discuss a candidate's accomplishments in cleaning up pollution.

The basis of the collection is the Julian P. Kantor Political Commercial Archive, which the University of Oklahoma acquired in 1985. Kantor began collecting political spots as a hobby in 1956 and eventually amassed twenty-five thousand items.

Since receiving the archive, the Center has sought additions from current and past political campaigns and has more than doubled the collection. It includes materials not even available at some presidential libraries.

The collection reflects television's evolution. Commercials started out on 16mm film and moved to 2" reelto-reel video in the 1960s and 1970s, to 1" video in the 1980s and then to today's digital 3/4" cassettes.

Using an NEH grant, Kaid, along with project codirector Kathleen Haynes, associate professor in the university's School of Library and Information Studies, and a team of experts have cleaned, repaired, and rewound film footage. It is now kept in special film cans to be housed in temperatureand humidity-controlled storage areas. …

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