Through the Daisy Girl’s Eye

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Her name was Birgitte Olsen. She was famous in spite of being completely unknown; for almost a half century, hardly anyone even knew this adorable 4-year-old’s name. Her fame was the result of a 60-second political campaign advertisement that was unlike any other ever seen before or since in America. According to Olsen, she was “picked out of a bunch of kids, just like any other commercial” after being presented for the ad by her agent Monica Stuart of the Schuller Agency. Stuart would later represent Linda Blair and help win her the role of Regan in The Exorcist.

On the night of September 7, 1964, during a telecast of David and Bathsheba on the NBC Monday Movie, the advertisement was aired for the first time; one of the most controversial, arguably most shocking, ads in American history. Despite being aired only once commercially, in the intervening 50 years  it was viewed and analyzed millions of times on political news shows, in high schools and universities, 1960s historical documentaries, as well as having an influence on campaign advertising, down to the present day.

The ad became known as “Daisy” (sometimes “Daisy Girl” or “Peace, Little Girl”). It begins with a little girl in a pleasant meadow replete with ambient chirping birds (reminiscent of James Whale’s Frankenstein) picking petals off a daisy. Her counting is childishly awkward and unordered (“1,2,3,4,5,7,6,6,8,9”), but when she reaches “nine” she seems to hesitate. A male voice suddenly bursts upon the girl’s hesitated count with a count-down. As she gazes up from the daisy at something in the sky, the camera zooming until her pupil envelops the screen in darkness, the countdown reaches “zero” and the darkness is replaced with the mushroom cloud of a nuclear blast.

As the firestorm rages, a voice over from Johnson states, “These are the stakes! 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.” Another voice over (sportscaster Chris Schenkel) then says, “Vote for President Johnson on November 3. The stakes are too high for you to stay home.” Wikipedia

The Daisy ad clinched Lyndon Johnson’s victory over Barry Goldwater (the ad’s implicit “voice of doom” ) in the 1964 Presidential Election. Sid Meyers was involved in casting Olsen as the Daisy Girl. He recalls that she was a “cute little Norman Rockwell freckle-faced girl.” Meyers was also present at Highbridge Park in Washington Heights (Manhattan) where the ad was shot in just two hours. A contract cameraman by the name of Drummond Drury shot the film; an extraordinary bit of “atomic coincidence” because Drury was also the cameraman for the Citizen Kane of civil defense films: Duck and Cover (1951).

Director Tony Schwartz, the ad’s mastermind, was reportedly not present at the shoot. However, he was responsible for mixing the soundtrack; the New York-accented director’s prompting of Olsen (“Count for me, sweetheart…”) and the attendant background noise in Highbridge Park is “like eavesdropping on history.” Raw tape of this footage was provided to CONELRAD.

It has often been asked by students of the Daisy ad whether Olsen’s counting out of sequence was scripted. Judging from the multiple takes on the tape and Schwartz’s own statement that he used what was on the recording to preserve credibility (“It was reality. It was the way the child talked.”[ 57 ]), the answer to this question is “no,” the counting sequence was not preordained.

I was a rambling 10-year-old in 1964 and wasn’t watching David and Bathsheba that night; hence, I missed the Daisy ad’s original airing. Nonetheless, it was such a sensational conversation piece, I believed that I had seen it; and many people at that time, of all ages, shared the same belief. Perhaps this was my first taste of political hocus-pocus…and Johnson was extremely skilled at such strategy.

                   Source: Daisy: The Complete History of an Infamous & Iconic Ad

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