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Tony Schwartz; His Ads Targeted Viewer Emotions

Tony Schwartz's "Daisy" ad in the 1964 presidential race, which played on fears of nuclear war, is considered one of the most effective political ads.
Tony Schwartz's "Daisy" ad in the 1964 presidential race, which played on fears of nuclear war, is considered one of the most effective political ads. (By Nancy Kaye)

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By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Tony Schwartz, 84, whose genius in audio recording resulted in the most famous political advertisement ever run and in a huge archive of New York sounds, instantly recognizable commercials and anti-smoking public service announcements, died June 15 of heart valve stenosis at his New York City home.

Mr. Schwartz's "Daisy" ad for President Lyndon B. Johnson's 1964 campaign aired just once but is cited as one of the first, most effective examples of negative television political ads. In it, the film of a young girl counting the daisy petals she plucks morphs into a nuclear countdown and fiery mushroom cloud.

Johnson's voice follows, warning: "We must either love each other, or we must die." An announcer closes: "Vote for President Johnson on November 3. The stakes are too high for you to stay home."

The name of Johnson's rival, the hawkish Sen. Barry Goldwater, was never mentioned, but the Arizona Republican's campaign immediately and furiously objected. The ad, which aired Sept. 7, 1964, was pulled but is still discussed in political science and journalism circles.

It was a perfect example of how Mr. Schwartz connected to an audience's emotions rather than trying to overtly persuade them with facts. Another example: In response to the question of what sort of president Spiro T. Agnew might make, the listener heard chuckling, which grew to hysterical laughter.

An eccentric and somewhat reclusive man, Mr. Schwartz brilliantly used sound for succinct communication of public matters. He also was his own archivist, interpreter and publicist, all the while working out of his Hell's Kitchen home. Because he was an agoraphobic who rarely ventured outside alone and almost never left his neighborhood, anyone who wanted to work with him in person had to show up at the brownstone townhouse. More than 200 politicians, including presidents and would-be presidents, did.

During his career, he estimated that he recorded more than 20,000 spots, ranging from three seconds to an hour in length. In addition to political campaigns, Mr. Schwartz developed ads for social issues he supported, including an abortion referendum in Alaska and a nuclear-freeze referendum in Maine. He did some of the first anti-smoking commercials, showing children dressing up in their parents' clothes. "Children learn by imitating their parents," the announcer said. "Do you smoke cigarettes?"

Shame is underrated as a social tool in the modern era, he said, so he relied on it in his work to discourage fellow New Yorkers from letting their dogs foul the streets, persuade a major landowner to clean up its deteriorating buildings in his neighborhood and prevent the governor from building a prison next to a Girl Scout camp.

He told Washington Post writer Tom Shales in 1983 that he could compress virtually any voice without loss of comprehension.

"We can hear four times as fast as we can talk," he said. "So the question is, what do you do with the other time?" In the case of a Coca-Cola commercial, he created one ad in which two icy bottles of soda pop are accompanied by sounds of people at play, and another in which the only sound is that of liquid being poured.

"The best thing about radio is that people were born without earlids. You can't close your ears to it," he said.

Mr. Schwartz, a New York native, became interested in radio as a child. He said that he went temporarily blind as a teenager because of an "emotional-type" episode. Six months later, he regained his sight and had a newfound appreciation for sound. He graduated from the Pratt Institute in New York and served in the Navy during World War II as a civilian artist. He worked for several ad agencies before starting his own enterprise.

Mr. Schwartz was often credited with being the first person to use children's real voices in commercials. He claimed to have created the first portable tape recorder, cobbling together parts so he could see the volume meter while the wire recorder hung from a strap on his shoulder. He built an important archive of folk music and the sounds of New York City in the post-World War II period. Those latter recordings have preserved sounds of zookeepers, elevator operators, foghorns, cash registers and taxi drivers.

Although some colleagues grumbled that Mr. Schwartz took too much credit for the "Daisy" ad, which was produced by the Doyle Dane Bernbach agency, and that he was a publicity-seeker (his own Web site touts his appearances on the BBC and "60 Minutes"), few could deny that he was a scholar, as well as pioneering practitioner, of electronic media.

Mr. Schwartz wrote two influential books, "The Responsive Chord" in 1973 and "Media: The Second God" in 1981, and taught at several universities, including Harvard and Columbia, via two-way telephone and satellite links.

His collection of recordings was acquired by the Library of Congress last summer. Eugene DeAnna, head of the recorded sound section of the library, called it the "audio equivalent of the 'Family of Man' " photographic collection. Once the library completes its work of digitizing the tapes and begins posting them online, Mr. Schwartz's impact on the culture beyond his political and commercial work will become clear, DeAnna said.

Survivors include his wife of 49 years, Reenah Lurie Schwartz of New York; two children; a brother; and a grandson.


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