To quote playwright Sean Devine, who penned DAISY, the story of media’s creative inroads into politics: “The commercial played only once. And we’re still talking about it.” Succinctly put, since academicians, pragmatists, and political pundits have been arguing about this “attack ad” since it first aired in 1964 – and aired only one time. A timely and scary commentary on what it means to persuade – or manipulate – during a political campaign, DAISY is the first full-blown effort by advertising experts to sell a candidate – in this case, Democrat Lyndon Johnson running for his second term against Republican Barry Goldwater in 1964. Yes, Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower unveiled the first televised political ad in 1952. But it was not until 1964 that televised ads were weaponized, literally and figuratively.
Based on a true story about the development of the LBJ election ad initially called “Peace, Little Girl” but later dubbed “Daisy,” this play delves into the tale of how the media ultimately became part and parcel of the political scene. The production features the ad team at Doyle Dane Bernbach, a Madison Avenue agency known for its powerful and successful campaigns for commodities like Volkswagens. But now they are hired to package and sell a politician. How they go about doing this is chronicled in Devine’s play about Bernbach (Ed. F. Martin), a top-level ad executive, three ad agency employees (Alex Dabestani, Erin Anne Williams, Matthew Floyd Miller), and real-life agoraphobic Tony Schwartz, a sound theorist obsessed with human responses to noise who spends most of his waking hours recording all the sounds around him.
An ad agency favorite, Tony Schwartz (David Nevell) had already created highly successful ads for most of the big corporations of the day. Teamed with the fictionalized agency team and coordinating with White House liaison African-American Clifford Lewis (based on LBJ’s sole African American black counsel and played by Phillip J. Lewis), the group fashions a novel media election campaign. One of their most controversial ads features an innocent little girl just past toddlerhood learning to count by plucking petals from a daisy. As she tries to keep the numbers in order, a male voice begins to overshadow her tiny sounds – counting down. As the camera comes closer and closer to the concentrating child, the screen suddenly flashes with a nuclear mushroom cloud before urging voters to cast a ballot for Johnson. The first time that DAISY was aired, it precipitated such an outcry that it was retired forever.
DAISY is definitely a thought-provoking production, both timely and eerily in line with the contemporary political moment. It introduces a host of questions without answers as it explores the ethical conundrums surrounding attitudes and attitude change in our society. The talented cast does a superb job of defining the underlying emotional impact of typically theoretical and highly cognitive concepts. Caryn desai’s careful direction enhances the multifaceted feelings in what could have been a completely cerebral exercise. Technologically, DAISY does an excellent job of “zooming” into the heart of the matter with a smooth and easy style. It’s hard to believe that each actor is not in the same room as the story progresses. Historical – but also contemporaneous – DAISY is a must-see in today’s era of political turmoil – days before a Presidential election.
DAISY live streamed at 7 p.m. (PST) on Saturday, October 24, 2020. Tickets are $20, and DAISY will remain available for viewing on demand through November 7, 2020. For information and reservations, go to the International City Theatre website.