PHOENIX — Fifty years on, the most famous, or notorious, political attack ad in U.S. history hasn’t lost its explosive punch.
For nearly 30 seconds, a freckled, brown-eyed girl — unmistakably a redhead even though the scene is in black and white — counts as she plucks petals from a daisy on an idyllic August day in New York City’s Highbridge Park.
When she gets to 10, a chilling voice-over countdown begins. The frame freezes and the camera zooms into a close-up of the child’s eye. As the countdown hits zero, a nuclear bomb detonates with a mushroom cloud.
“These are the stakes,” says President Lyndon Johnson. “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.”
A narrator implores voters to support Johnson on Election Day: “The stakes are too high for you to stay home.”
Johnson’s 1964 Republican opponent was never mentioned by name, but the target was clear: conservative Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona, who had been in the news for controversial comments about atomic warfare and held an uncompromising stance toward the Soviet Union and communism.
The 60-second spot was broadcast only once, 50 years ago Sunday, on Sept. 7, 1964, during a screening of the 1951 biblical drama “David and Bathsheba” on NBC’s “Monday Night at the Movies.” Unsuspecting viewers had never seen anything like it, and the outcry was immediate.
Goldwater and his fellow Republicans were furious at what they saw as unprecedented scaremongering in a presidential campaign.
Decades later, Goldwater supporters still nurse grudges over the commercial and respond angrily when it’s mentioned, even though it is a stretch to say, as some critics maintain, that the ad derailed the Arizonan’s always-slim chances of defeating Johnson so soon after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination.
“You have to remember it was only two years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, when we came very close to nuclear destruction,” said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics and the co-producer of an upcoming PBS documentary tentatively titled “Bombs Away: LBJ, Goldwater and the 1964 Campaign That Changed It All.”
“To see a little girl explode into a mushroom cloud really touched people’s deepest fears about the nuclear age.”
Now considered a classic that continues to be studied, debated and imitated, the ad was produced by the “Mad Men”-era New York agency Doyle Dane Bernbach.
The ambitious firm by the early 1960s had gained an avant-garde reputation for its innovative Volkswagen Beetle (“Think Small”) and Avis rental car (“We Try Harder”) campaigns. Kennedy was impressed with their work and signaled he wanted the agency for his 1964 re-election effort.
DDB became the first firm to apply creative Madison Avenue principles to political advertising, which up to then had been characterized largely by predictable talking heads and reserved messaging tactics.
In the 1960 White House race, for example, Republican Richard Nixon’s ad campaign largely consisted of a series of TV spots that featured him sitting on his desk and commenting on federal spending, civil rights, the economy and foreign policy.
Although the “Daisy” ad was not the first political attack ad, it is credited, or blamed, for helping usher in relentless negativity in campaigning.
“This was something entirely new in American politics,” said Robert Mann, a professor of mass communication at Louisiana State University and the author of the 2011 book “Daisy Petals and Mushroom Clouds: LBJ, Barry Goldwater, and the Ad That Changed American Politics.”
“This was a campaign that gave creative control to an ad firm, which is something that had not happened very often,” he said. “By and large, up to that point, the campaigns told the ad firms, ‘Here’s what we want you to do.’ It was all pretty staid and fact-based and appealing to reason. Certainly not to emotion.”
‘Daisy’ living in Phoenix
The groundbreaking commercial’s official title was “Peace, Little Girl,” but history forever associates it with the anonymous 3-year-old tot from Pine Beach, N.J., who starred in it: “Daisy Girl.”
In 1964, she was Monique Corzilius, who under the professional name “Monique Cozy” had a brief but prolific career as a child model.
Today she is Monique Luiz, 53, a human-resources superviser at a downtown Phoenix bank.
Her modeling success is documented in a family scrapbook compiled by her father, Frederick Corzilius, who died in 2012. From the age of 1½ to about 7 or 8, she appeared in ads for Kodak, Velveeta, Lipton, Hostess, Prudential Insurance and other products in mass-circulation magazines such as Life, Look, Reader’s Digest, McCall’s and Redbook.
Luiz even made the cover of the Sept. 25, 1964, issue of Time via an image of the “Daisy” commercial.
Because of her age at the time, Luiz doesn’t remember many details about her starring turn as the “Daisy Girl,” which marked her television-commercial debut. Partly because her family lived in France for several years, she never even got around to actually seeing the ad until around the year 2000, although its controversy had long been part of family lore.
“I did what my parents told me to do,” Luiz recalled in a recent interview with The Arizona Republic at her Phoenix home. “And actually my parents didn’t even know what it was about. They didn’t even know it was a political commercial. I already knew how to count, I think to 50, and my mom was told to teach me to count backwards. And I struggled with that.”
In the summer of 1964, the Corzilius family had no idea Luiz would make history by answering a casting call. Per Mann’s book, Luiz won the “Daisy Girl” part after competing with roughly 30 other kids. She and her parents were pleased with the $100 she made from the shoot, but the family wasn’t prepared for the uproar once the “Daisy” spot aired. Not only did her parents not realize that their daughter had appeared in an ad for Johnson, but “my mom preferred Goldwater,” Luiz said.
Luiz remembered her “worrywart” grandmother urging the family to keep quiet about her participation in the commercial, given the blowback and bad publicity.
They largely did.
“My grandmother was super-nervous about the fact that there were so many people bad-mouthing my parents and me,” Luiz said. “She was really worried because people were saying, ‘How could any parents let their children be in a commercial like that? How could you let your child blow up?’ … So that’s kind of how I grew up.”
When Luiz moved to Arizona in 1983, she was keenly aware she had relocated to the heart of Goldwater Country.
Goldwater, who died in 1998, represented the state for five terms in the Senate, from 1953 to 1965 and from 1969 to 1987. By the 1980s, Goldwater had evolved into an elder GOP statesman, and his bitter race against Johnson was seen in retrospect as a precursor to President Ronald Reagan’s victory in 1980. Goldwater’s 1964 landslide loss, though dramatic, steered the Republican Party in a more conservative direction that continues today.
Because of the negative connotations still associated with the “Daisy” ad, Luiz avoided any connection to the commercial or to Goldwater. She even declined to shop at Goldwaters, the department-store chain founded by Goldwater’s grandfather, even though the Goldwater family hadn’t owned it for years.
“I don’t know for sure that this commercial actually changed the outcome, but a lot of people are under the impression that it did,” she said.
Luiz might have stayed out of the story if family members in 2009 hadn’t become aware of an imposter “Daisy Girl” claiming to have appeared in the ad. The phony was featured on CONELRAD, a website devoted to Cold War politics, propaganda and pop culture that includes an exhaustive archive of interviews, documents and audio and video files related to the “Daisy” ad.
Bill Geerhart of CONELRAD traveled to Arizona to meet with Luiz and her father and concluded that he had been “duped” by the other woman, who also gave a 1998 interview as the “Daisy Girl” to CBS. Geerhart was persuaded by Luiz’s physical resemblance to the girl in the commercial, and by the paycheck stubs, contracts and other ephemera Frederick Corzilius kept.
“There is zero doubt in my mind that Monique Corzilius was the one who was in the ad,” Geerhart said.
It was important to her father that Luiz reclaim her rightful legacy as the only true “Daisy Girl.”
“He was super-proud of it,” Luiz said. “He’s the one who kept saying, ‘You should do something.’ He’s the one who really pushed for CONELRAD, or Bill, to come and gave him the proof.”
In October 2011, Luiz made a rare public appearance in Louisiana at an event for the publication of Mann’s “Daisy Petals and Mushroom Clouds” book. There she learned she is a celebrity among political-history nerds.
“It was really strange for me,” Luiz said. “They had me sign the books ‘Monique Cozy, the Daisy Girl.’ So I felt really famous for that weekend.”
John Geer, a professor of political science at Vanderbilt University and an expert on negative political ads, said the legend surrounding the “Daisy” commercial has continued to grow to the point it is probably better known today than it was in 1964.
The spot was clever in its economical use of dialogue and ability to indict Goldwater as a dangerous choice without using his name, he said.
“It absolutely was cutting-edge for its time,” said Geer, author of “In Defense of Negativity: Attack Ads in Presidential Campaigns.”
“And frankly it remains the standard for subtlety because attack ads tend to be meat axes,” he said, while the “Daisy” ad “uses a stiletto.”
Goldwater also compared the “Daisy” ad to a knifing, even though the Democrats ran it as a paid TV advertisement only once.
“Why just once? Why not a dozen times?” Goldwater would write in a 1988 memoir. “The answer is that if you stab a man in the back deeply enough once, you can murder him.”
Judy Eisenhower, who was Goldwater’s secretary in 1964 and later served as his Senate chief of staff, recalled Goldwater was “livid” after he saw the “Daisy” ad.
“He called Lyndon Johnson and told him in ‘Goldwater language’ what he thought of him and how dishonest it was,” Eisenhower recalled. “The senator was just beside himself, because it was so distorted. It was so untrue.”
Haunted by words
Still, Goldwater helped create the environment that made the ad resonate. Known for his candor, Goldwater was haunted by his own words. The public record was full of his statements that contributed to a perception that maybe his finger shouldn’t be on the nation’s nuclear button.
At a time when Cold War tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union were high, Goldwater joked about lobbing a nuclear missile into “the men’s room” of the Kremlin. He defended, at least in theory, the use of low-yield tactical nuclear weapons in Vietnam, and drew intense criticism for suggesting that he would give NATO “commanders” the authority to use nuclear weapons in the case of an emergency.
America was on edge, and Goldwater’s comments about nuclear weapons “just frightened the hell out of everybody,” said Sid Myers, the DDB senior art director who collaborated on the “Daisy” ad with copywriter Stan Lee and sound man Tony Schwartz, both of whom are no longer living.
“They gave us a big blue binder of every speech that Goldwater made, and we just went through it,” Myers told The Republic. “We took his words and made commercials out of them. Like when he said the United States would be better off if we sawed off the Eastern Seaboard and let it float out to sea. Well, we visually did that line and it was very, very effective.”
Lloyd Wright, the Democratic National Committee’s media coordinator, was in the room when Johnson screened the ad at the White House in advance of its airing. Wright developed the 1964 Democratic communications strategy along with Bill Moyers, Johnson’s special assistant who went on to become a well-known CBS and PBS broadcaster.
Everybody was taken aback by “the sheer power” of the “Daisy” ad, Wright recalled.
“As we would refer to Goldwater, he kept shooting from the lip,” Wright said. “He would say things that would give us ammunition. In nearly all of our ads, we didn’t make any claims against him much. We just let him do it himself.”
Contrary to popular belief, the “Daisy” ad was not yanked off the air because of complaints. In fact, the Goldwater camp’s outrage amplified the impact of the $25,000 ad buy because it drew more attention to the spot. That made it a news story.
“It was so powerful that the reaction was so enormous and impactful that all three networks ran it in their newscasts the next two or three nights,” Wright recalled. “It did its job, we thought, and we didn’t need to spend more money to buy more time when it was getting free play.”
Myers also made the point that Goldwater and the Republicans made the situation worse for themselves by carping about it. “They just blew it out of proportion,” he said. “It only ran once, but it ran a million times on the news.”
These days Monique Luiz doesn’t follow politics much. Too much “trash-talking” on TV.
“It’s frustrating, and they say this ad helped contribute to that a lot,” Luiz said.
“Oh, my gosh, I hate that. Not that I did it personally, but the ad that I was in contributed to it. So that’s kind of disappointing.”