Television Ads in US Presidential Campaigns Have a History of Exploiting Fear

Term Paper, 2011

14 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. “Peace Little Girl (Daisy)”, 1964 (Johnson)
2.1 Images
2.2 Sounds
2.3 Language

3. “McGovern Defense”, 1972 (Nixon)
3.1 Images
3.2 Sounds
3.3 Language

4. “Weapons (Florida)”, 2004 (George W. Bush)
4.1 Images
4.2 Sounds
4.3 Language

5. Conclusion

6. Works Cited

1. Introduction

Election campaigns are common rituals in democracies. Politicians try to persuade voters in order to be elected. Therefore, political candidates usually make use of professional campaigning strategies that involve the television as the most important medium. Since the 1960s US presidential campaign ads on TV have been increasingly successful and cutting-edge. They sometimes were so convincing they even swung a decision. Over the last decades the predominant topics in US federal politics were the Cold War as well as national security and the US military. In 1964 the presidential election campaign was highly influenced by the escalating situation in Vietnam and the general disquiet caused by the arms race and nuclear weapons. The American psyche was collectively anxious about the latent atomic menace so it suggested itself to address fear in a presidential campaign ad. The Nixon campaign 1972 dealt with one of the genuine Republican topics: Military. Due to its success it was remade in two subsequent campaigns called “Tank Ride” in 1988 for George Bush and 2004 in “Weapons Florida” for George W. Bush. The latter will be examined in this paper, too.

However, there are different approaches to persuade the voting public; one of the most favorable techniques is playing on the people’s emotions. Thus, it is not surprising that US presidential campaign ads have a history of exploiting fear in television ads. It leads from 1964 until 2004 and aims at persuading voters by the well-directed use of sounds, images and language.

2. “Peace Little Girl (Daisy)”, 1964 (Johnson)

2.1 Images

The ad “Peace Little Girl (Daisy)” shows a cute girl standing in the green picking petals off a flower while the camera zooms in on her. The act of zooming-in suggests becoming not only spatial but above all emotionally closer to the girl. The viewer immediately gets involved with the immersed child as it creates an almost intimate moment at close range. The daisy girl is wearing white clothes intensifying the peaceful and innocent symbolism of this ad. After about 20 seconds the girl lifts her head and looks somewhere in the distance which raises the question what she has noticed. Suddenly the image freezes and it is rapidly zoomed into the girl’s eye. This stylistic device creates suspense and dramatically evokes a dangerous threat. The viewer’s attention is caught by interrupting the lovely scene from the beginning. It makes everyone wonder what might jeopardize the secure girl representing all US American children and even citizen in general.

When the atomic bomb explodes in the following scene the detonation is narratively linked to the safety of this particular girl who is obviously endangered. At that point the supposed voters are already feeling responsible for the girl’s well-being to some extent because they identify with her and translate her hazardous situation to their own lives. The bomb explodes right in the girl’s pupil and for nearly one third of the ad there is nothing to see but the massive mushroom cloud and its destructive power. The ad visually contrasts the antonyms peace and war in only a few seconds and demonstrates how vulnerable we all are in view of nuclear power. Everyone’s primal fear is sparked and we feel the need to avert this danger in a knee-jerk reaction. These images alone speak for themselves and are followed by the call to vote for President Johnson.

2.2 Sounds

The ad’s peaceful opening scene is reinforced on the sound level. Humming birds are the only noise in an otherwise quiet and silent nature. The Daisy Girl starts counting up while she picks the petals one by one rounding out the harmonic atmosphere. Her soft and fragile voice perfectly fits into this appealing scene. Who would not want to shelter and guard this lovely girl? When counting she confuses the numbers six and seven which makes her even more authentic and lovable. As she repeats number nine hesitantly the viewer’s attention climaxes. Before she reaches number ten she is harshly interrupted by the disturbing countdown.

This extreme contrast is also reflected in the voices that are counting in opposing manners. Whereas the girl speaks in a soft and dreamy way and the male speaker sounds bleak, steely even mechanical and automatic. At zero the countdown is followed by the sound of a giant bomb blast counteracting the unstressed environment of the girl. Then, the President Johnson cuts into the bursting to address the American people. His voice is drowning the upsetting noise making him larger and more powerful than the biggest menace on earth. Johnson is acoustically predominant and capable of dealing with the nuclear threat. Finally, an anonymous speaker directly calls on the voters to reelect President Johnson providing an effective testimonial.

2.3 Language

Language in this advertisement is intentionally used to emphasize the message to the voting public. First, the two contrarious directions of counting are juxtaposed. The girl counts upwards indicating an open end; it is inclining, promising and associated with hope and future. On the other hand, the adult voice counts downwards implying a near and inevitable end; it is declining, diminishing and goes along with hopelessness. This comparison confronts the American voters with dread and awe.

The language President Johnson uses in the Daisy Girl ad is both alerting and catchy. “These are the stakes” implicitly refers to the disastrous consequences the election of presidential contender Goldwater would have. How disastrous the nation’s prospects would be with Goldwater as president has just been shown quite plainly in this spot. Accordingly, the security of the daisy girl is at risk and hence, our children and our future are too. Johnson even mentions the impending death explicitly giving the nation two alternatives: “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.” This statement openly brings up the apocalypse and activates the humans’ deepest worries.

The spot closes with a brief and clear appeal: “Vote for President Johnson on November 3rd. The stakes are too high for you to stay home.” It places the responsibility for a safe and peaceful future on the voter. Who dared staying home when “all of God’s children” are at risk? It suggests only one solution: Only if President Johnson is in charge the bomb will not go off; thus responsible Americans have to vote for Johnson.


Excerpt out of 14 pages


Television Ads in US Presidential Campaigns Have a History of Exploiting Fear
University of Duisburg-Essen
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presidential, campaigns, have, history, exploiting, fear
Quote paper
Julia Wehner (Author), 2011, Television Ads in US Presidential Campaigns Have a History of Exploiting Fear , Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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