The girl who exploded, political ads

The Little Girl Who Exploded: An Origin Story of the Modern Political Attack Ad

“Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice.”

Presidential Candidate Barry Goldwater spoke these words in his nominee acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in 1964. Little did the father of modern conservatism know, these words would set the stage for modern political campaigns in United States history and inevitably cause a partisan divide in the United States that would continue to grow even into modern day politics.

Trump’s campaign “Deplorable” Ad.

Clinton’s Campaign “Low Opinion” Ad.

Using these two ads as a case study, we can see two examples of the kind of technique that indeed began in the election of 1964. Neither ad hits home their own policies or platforms, but only attacks the other candidate. Frankly, it reminds me of the Bobby Newport Attack ad scenes from NBC’s Parks and Recreation:

The 1960s

If one looks at the ads of 1960, one will find promotional material such as:

This example listed is purely a catchy jingle promoting Kennedy. The second is the ancestor to the modern attack ad.

While not blatantly harmful (almost obvious as Nixon was not the president at the time, so of course, he cannot make decisions on behalf of the presidency), it does pave the way to make the opponent look bad.

The Election of 1964

Barry Golderwater’s “Punchard” Political Ad

This Barry Goldwater ad uses Big Brother, obviously an allusion to George Orwell’s 1984, as an allegory for the United States Government. He then takes time to address the camera directly and state his platform and grievances with the government and the opposition. Goldwater, however, does cleverly use the opening of America the Beautiful when he introduces his ideas before he speaks to the camera for a long while.

Compare that to this:

Johnson’s searing Political Ad against Goldwater.

The message was so effective to get its point across, that it aired only once and the Goldwater campaign filed a lawsuit against it.

Barry Goldwater’s famous “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” is directly correlated to this ad. Regardless of political beliefs or political affiliation, this advertisement is far more useful for a multitude of reasons. The ad is shorter, there are no talking points, it’s loud and scary, and it gets its message across vigorously and effectively, all critical aspects to an active form of communication.

Its use of imagery of the atomic bomb juxtaposed against an innocent little girl is meant to tug at one’s heartstrings. As practical as it may be, however, we don’t know much about LBJ’s policies other than that it that he is anti-nuclear war.

Johnson’s attack on Goldwater: “Merely a weapon?”

Another ad attacks Barry Goldwater’s position on the atom bomb saying that Mr. Goldwater is downplaying the significance of the bomb calling it, “merely another weapon.” It uses loudness and terrifying imagery of the atom bomb to scare voters into voting for LBJ.
Johnson’s political ad equating him to the KKK

This ad equates Barry Goldwater to the Ku Klux Klan, a domestic terrorist group geared toward white supremacy and heightened nationalism. The use of boisterous drum and images of the burning cross and hooded Klan members are meant to deter voters from voting for Goldwater. No policies, no platform from LBJ or the Democratic party.

Switching back to Goldwater for some more context,

“Your children will be communist”

Goldwater begins implementing some of the techniques that we have seen so far from the LBJ campaign with a juxtaposition of an American classroom and Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev stating on television that “your children will be communist.” This message is effective, but the ad quickly cuts to Goldwater speaking to the camera for the remainder of the ad. Arguably not as effective as an atomic bomb exploding through one’s TV amid a genuine threat of actual nuclear war.

LBJ Eastern seaboard being cutoff

While there is a significant amount of talking in this ad, the imagery of the eastern seaboard being cut off from the rest of the United States captivates the watcher into staying engaged throughout the entire ad.

It has become quite clear through an analysis of the videos which advertisements are more memorable, which ones struck a chord with the American people.

As we can see from the Electoral College map, the campaign to attack Goldwater and his policies with dramatic, frightening images and quick sound bites was successful. I don’t mean to attribute these ads to the ONLY thing that equated to his victory, but I will argue that it was helpful.

Lee Harvey Oswald assassinated the former president, forcing LBJ to take up the mantle. Not only that, but the Cuban Missile Crisis, one of the closest nuclear calls in American history had taken place. A nation with that much unease and anxiety about apocalyptic war and ever-changing leadership and assassination is bound to vote for the familiar.

I will say, however, that the campaign ads of 1964 shook American political campaigns to their core and forever changed them. The divide in American politics is ever present in the TV ads of election years. I would argue that most TV watching Americans know more bad things about the opposition than what their platforms are and what they stand for. However, that is the nature of where we are, wither that’s for better or for worse, that’s up for you to decide.

Next time you see an attack ad, think back to 1964, think back to Barry Goldwater and Lyndon Johnson, and remember exactly where it began, and how we got to what is currently on your TV.