Today in the undergrad U.S. history survey, the prof screened LBJ’s 1964 “Daisy” ad. None of the students had ever seen it before, so they didn’t know what to expect. The prof simply framed the clip as probably the most famous political campaign ad ever, then we dimmed the lights and rolled the clip.
So there she was, in living black-and-white, the freckled little blond child of (white) American innocence, sweetly destroying a daisy, white petal by white petal, counting confusedly until there were no more petals to count. “Nine,” she says. “Nine,” she repeats, with puzzlement. Where to go from here?
Ten, of course. So the faceless countdown starts, and the little girl looks to the sky in surprise, eyes wide, frozen in frame, framing and enveloping the moment of dread. The bomb drops, the mushroom cloud billows up, and we have LBJ’s voice-over:
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.
At this point the entire class erupted in laughter.
What does that laughter mean?
Well, for one thing, it means that they’re not afraid — at least not of the same things their parents and grandparents grew up fearing. And not the same things that men and women their age in other parts of the world grow up fearing. They’re not afraid of death raining down from the sky. They’re certainly not afraid of the mutually assured destruction of total thermonuclear war.
Cue the chorus: “They should be afraid.” Climate change, dwindling resources, genetically engineered crops, a devastating pandemic, class warfare, drone warfare, the erosion of civil liberties, poverty, privation, terror — maybe they should be afraid of everything on that list.
Maybe they should be. But they’re not. Or perhaps they are, and they don’t quite know how to come out and say it, and that’s why they’re laughing.
However, I think the dread of destruction is mostly out of their field of vision as a live possibility right now. Instead they’re afraid of not being able to pay off their student loans, or not being able to find a job, or a love, or a life they would relish as authentic and good. Like many (most?) 19 or 20 year old American college students, they are very much in the present (though they may be virtually present somewhere else). But they do think about a future, which is not always a sign of naivety or youthful folly.
They do see something foolish, or at least ridiculous, in the campaign spot. The stark choice between a vote for Lyndon Johnson and the certain annihilation of the entire planet’s population strikes them as perhaps a little bit exaggerated, a little bit over the top. Through the cloud and the flame and the thundering voice, they recognize the humbuggery of the wizard behind the curtain, that Baumian window-dresser, the ad man.
It’s not that they’re picking up on some puckish tone in the spot. While the ad works via a series of ironic contrasts — a voice for a voice, an eye for an eye, a flower for a flower — there is nothing mocking about the ad. It is deadly serious. And yet there is something unruly about it. In The Conquest of Cool, Thomas Frank explains it like this:
Without giving Barry Goldwater’s name, the commercial managed to portray the 1964 contest as a choice between automated holocaust and pre-consumer innocence: a child playing with a daisy fades into a mechanical-sounding adult voice counting down to a nuclear explosion. Over the years, the commercial has been criticized as an unfair portrayal of Goldwater’s views, and it is certainly true that Goldwater was not, strictly speaking, in favor of nuclear destruction. But the commercial’s power has nothing to do with Goldwater, or with Johnson, for that matter. It aimed, rather, to case the election as an expression of the archetypal cultural conflict of the age. Its stark division of the world into flower-child and technocratic death-count couldn’t have caught the mood of the nation more accurately or more presciently. And although it was run only a limited number of times (and DDB never did political advertising again), it summarizes the aesthetics and faiths of the consumer revolution more concisely and convincingly than almost any other document of the decade.
Perhaps, then, the students’ laughter is a sign that “the aesthetics and faiths of the consumer revolution” have thoroughly triumphed, ushering in a second Eden of purchased innocence. Or — and, I think, on a related note — I suppose one might argue that the laughter of these students is a signpost of postmodernism: they have transcended the dialectic of hipness and squareness, and now everything is just, well, ironic. And then one might argue over whether this laughter should be viewed as a Good Thing or as a Sign of Decay.
This laughter over the ad’s message — “vote for LBJ or we’re all gonna die” — might mean that the Sixties are still with us, or it might mean that the Sixties are gone for good. And that too could be seen as a good thing or a bad thing.
At the very least, the sound of a whole lecture hall full of students roaring with laughter over the peculiarities of the past can serve as a small reminder that today doesn’t ever have to be like yesterday — not for these kids, nor for anybody else’s.
 Thomas Frank, The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), 72-73.
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