“Clinton’s Daisy Chain”
As Eric Barnouw taught us long ago, one astonishing thing about the 1964 Doyle Dane Bernbach ad campaign featuring “the daisy girl” is that it was produced at the moment Lyndon Johnson was planning the escalation of US fighting in Vietnam. In the one-minute spot, a young girl picks leaves off of a daisy. Her counting is replaced by the countdown to a missile launch. Johnson’s voice states menacingly, “These are the stakes. To make a world in which all God’s children can live, or go into the dark. We must either love each other, or we must die.” By refusing to depict in any way its intended target, Barry Goldwater, the rhetoric made him seem all the more frightening. However, the minimalist images carry very little weight: there is a push into the girl’s eye, after which we see a mushroom cloud. But otherwise, the force of the ad is purely aural. The girl’s hesitant counting, the mechanistic countdown, and then the sound of the atomic blast is replaced by Johnson’s calm, reasonable, and humanistic voice. A deep-voiced man then tells us to go to vote on November 3: “The stakes are too high for you to stay home.”
For the 2016 presidential campaign, Hilary Clinton has been running a thirty-second ad haunted by the daisy spot. Speaking from the Ellsworth Missile Site in South Dakota, a former nuclear missile launch officer tells us about the military responsibility to fire the missiles when the president orders them to do so. At first, a soft, understated piano score gives the spot a restrained feel. However, at the moment Bruce Blair tells us “self-control may be all that keeps these missiles from firing,” the spot exponentially increases its rhetorical aggressiveness. As a launch alarm sounds, three clips of Donald Trump spouting vitriol—“I would bomb the [bleep] out of them…I want to be unpredictable…I love war” cause Blair to state: “The thought of Donald Trump with nuclear weapons scares me to death. It should scare everyone.” A snare drum increases the pace of the music, competing with and then overwhelming the piano. A final stinger from the drum ends the music and introduces Hilary Clinton in profile, looking upward presidentially; she declares in voice-off: “I’m Hilary Clinton, and I approved this message.” Her logo, “Strong Together” ends the spot.
The Clinton spot transforms “Daisy” profoundly. While by no means subtle, “Daisy” was aesthetically constrained, refusing music, and most importantly the need to dignify Barry Goldwater with an appearance. Clinton’s ad pulls out all of the stops: like a 1930s classical documentary, its music is emotionally programmatic in its functioning. The trio of Donald Trump snippets places his dangerous bluster square in the middle of the ad. What does it mean that Clinton has returned to “Daisy” in the first place? Is the rhetorical maneuver—Donald Trump is worse than Barry Goldwater—the sole message? He certainly makes Mitt Romney and John McCain seem reasonable in comparison. But if Trump is indeed worse, why is the return to 1930s documentary techniques (evocative music and script, elegant images, telegraphed emotional content) so necessary? Does the callback to “Daisy” signal that, like Johnson before her, Clinton too will escalate? Even if our vitriolic rhetoric makes us deserve Trump, why does the American public not also merit a candidate of de-escalation?
Barnouw, Eric. Tube of Plenty: The Evolution of American Television. 2nd Rev. Ed. New York and Oxford: Oxford UP, 1990. pg 359.