I Am Become President: The Rhetorical Choreography of Johnson’s Nuclear Propaganda

Yunhan Xu

Compared to the garish pageantry that normally characterizes presidential campaign advertisements, the minimalist approach of President Lyndon Johnson’s “Girl with Ice Cream Cone” commercial stands out. The attack ad, which aired in 1964, deploys an apocalyptic brand of reductionism to mobilize the public against electoral challenger Barry Goldwater. For sixty seconds, the viewer observes a single sequence of a young girl blithely consuming an ice cream cone while a disembodied female speaker delivers a single narrative about the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. The dire consequences of nuclear testing serve as a single justification for a Johnson ballot. The simplicity of the advertisement leaves little room for misinterpretation by the audience. Unless the viewer is oblivious to the existential stakes of nuclear catastrophe, he or she has no choice, by the logic of the commercial, but to elect Johnson. Within this conceptual framework, each presidential candidate, Johnson or Goldwater, is respectively exalted as the sole solution to, or sole catalyst of, nuclear Armageddon. Underpinning this advertisement, then, is the notion that democracy is a participatory system that enables citizens in ideological agreement to coalesce strategically. The ensuing micro-political coalition, who champions a cause such as nuclear test bans, then strives to elect a representative, a savior figure, to enact macro-political action.

Clearly, the apocalyptic content of the commercial is ripe ground in itself for criticism and deconstruction. By hyperbolizing the threat of nuclear extinction, the commercial creates a state of existential dread and agitation that compels citizens to supplant their own political will with a supposed collective will, the immediate objective of which is to elect Johnson. This façade of an egalitarian “we,” unified behind a presidential candidate, confers the appearance of a democracy upon a system governed by, and arguably for, the elite. However, although one could extrapolate a problematic model of democratic governance from these observations, it would be remiss to foreground the commercial’s content at the expense of the structure and presentation of its content. What distinguishes “Girl with Ice Cream Cone” from its counterparts is not its condemnation of Goldwater’s nuclear platform per se, but rather its method of condemnation. In particular, the commercial’s use of an unorthodox hierarchy of narrator, child, and audience serves to insulate its truth claims from scrutiny. Neither narrator nor girl acknowledges the audience during their pseudo-conversational exchange. The word “vote” is not uttered until the final seconds of the commercial. Instead, the nuclear rhetoric  of the advertisement is repackaged as dialogue, stripped of electoral context, and depoliticized through visual and auditory diversion. Through this method of veiled information delivery, the commercial’s structure renders the viewer a passive consumer and thereby espouses a coercive vision of democracy that does not encourage, but rather stifles, meaningful political participation.

The image of the girl impassively licking an ice cream cone, which occupies the screen for fifty-three seconds of the one-minute commercial, provides immediate evidence of the commercial’s reductive dynamics. She, the embodiment of naiveté and vulnerability, does not once speak, much less react to the alarmist narrative of the speaker. As she laps up the top of her cone, flecks of ice cream accumulate steadily around the corners of her mouth. Her line of sight never falls upon the audience but rather alternates between the ice cream and someplace off-screen, implying that she is unaware of the camera filming her. This endearing performance of childish vacuity, despite its apolitical veneer, indirectly prescribes a set of political actions for the audience. The viewer is implicitly informed that, if he or she is to safeguard this idealized representation of youth and innocence from an apocalyptic fate, he or she must form a strategic coalition against nuclear testing. Thus, as the sole “plot” of the commercial, the child is deployed to urge the audience to coalesce in support of Johnson. In this case, political coercion does not rely on macabre scenes of destruction and mushroom clouds, but rather the calculated pairing of doomsday rhetoric with the symbolism of future generations.

Moreover, the narrator introduces another enemy besides nuclear detonation through the script and her intonation. Her voice remains high-pitched and sing-song until she delivers the words “Goldwater” and “die.” When enunciating these two words, her pitch falls considerably and develops an ominous timbre. Through this process of vocally coupling Goldwater with the concepts of death and nuclear destruction, the coalition that Johnson has just forged becomes oriented against Goldwater. The commercial’s narrative progression, which takes the form of a pessimistic bell curve, amplifies the audience’s negative impression of Goldwater. The narrator cautions,

Do you know what people used to do? They used to explode atomic bombs in the air…Do you know what people finally did? They got together and signed a Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, and then the radioactive poison started to go away. But now, there’s a man who wants to be President of the United States, and he doesn’t like this treaty…He even voted against it. He wants to go on testing more bombs. His name is Barry Goldwater, and if he’s elected, they might start testing all over again. (Johnson)

By first presenting the troubling history of atomic testing, then alluding to a diplomatic solution, and finally returning to a grim counterfactual of a regression back to testing, the commercial reminds the audience of their obligation to coalesce in opposition to Goldwater. Thus, the coercive form of democracy proposed by the commercial incorporates a contradictory element of populism that urges collective action against ill-willed elites. It suggests that, although government exists in service of the public good, the act of voting should not be discounted as an instrumental method of ensuring this fundamental duty of democratic institutions. In short, though the government must and will protect its constituency, its constituency must also mobilize within governmental structures in order to protect itself.

Further analysis of the advertisement’s rhetorical tactics exposes the role of gender as a mobilization strategy. The femininity of the narrator’s voice frames the conversation within a maternal context that finds its basis in hackneyed female archetypes. The dialogue is couched in the sort of simpering oversimplification that one might expect of an exchange between schoolteacher and child. The repetition of the interrogative phrase “do you know” is reminiscent of factual, instructive videos that seek to educate, rather than persuade, the viewer. The narrator even makes several allusions to the girl's health and welfare, as though validating the goodness of her motives: “Now children should have lots of vitamin A and calcium, but they shouldn’t have any strontium-90 or cesium-137” (Johnson). The gendered implication of this dialogue is that the speaker is a female caregiver or educator whose authentic concern for the wellbeing of the girl and demonstrated virtue transcend electoral partisanship. In this way, the narrator’s female identity distances the delivery of the script from its underlying political agenda. Furthermore, the girl seems to have been carefully selected for her role as the image of futurity. By designating the poster child of potential nuclear winter as a hapless girl no older than six or seven, Caucasian and wide-eyed,

Nonetheless, what separates “Girl with Ice Cream Cone” from other political campaign advertisements is its structural departure from conventional narrative frameworks. The marketing pièce de résistance of the commercial is the way in which it choreographs interactions among its triad of participants: the girl, the narrator, and the audience. The audience interacts with the girl only by viewing her consumption of an ice cream cone; both are the soundless recipients of information. This interaction is mediated by the narrator’s one-way dialogue, which, due to its coddling tone, is presumably intended for the girl. Yet, the narration is projected from nowhere, a voice without corporeal confirmation. The speaker’s authority is thereby amplified by her physical indeterminacy – she is not a fallible individual, but rather an objective figure enshrouded by ambiguity and impersonality. Despite her physical absence, she is the locus of content. She narrates the apocalyptic counterfactual of nuclear winter, the product of a Goldwater victory, while simultaneously interspersing her narrative with direct references to the child. For instance, after listing a few radioactive isotopes and before explaining the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, she notes, “These things come from atomic bombs, and they’re radioactive. They can make you die” (Johnson). The speaker thus exists in the strange limbo between maternal anxiety and machinelike detachment. The viewer becomes both a witness to and an indirect recipient of the narration. The girl, on the other hand, becomes the embodiment, or simulacrum, of the audience. Though she appears to be the addressee of the narrator’s dialogue, the girl is in actuality a projection of the audience and thereby the medium through which the audience is coddled and manipulated. This hierarchy of speakers and listeners further elevates the narrator into a position of informational authority.

One effect of this rhetorical interplay is to downplay the intrusive “sales pitch” quality typical of political commercials. Instead of imploring the audience directly, the narrator obscures this self-serving intention by speaking to, and thus through, the girl. The girl becomes a prop that enables the narrator to declaim from a position of superiority without estranging the audience through blatant condescension. In this process of information transmission, the viewer is excluded from direct participatory roles. Bereft of a mechanism to critically engage the dialogue between narrator and child, he or she is rendered into a mere spectator and passive consumer of the nuclear narrative. Furthermore, since the content of the commercial is directed toward the child but ultimately intended for the audience, the submissive position of the child is grafted onto the viewer. The audience’s role is relegated to that of spectatorship, an act with little to no propensity for substantive engagement with the content at hand. This pseudo-participatory position is particularly consistent with the voter’s position in the nuclear policy realm; as a spectator of elite decision-making regarding “the bomb,” he or she is incapable of direct intervention.

The broader repercussion of this rhetorical positioning is its infringement upon the political sovereignty of the voter. This is not to suggest that the commercial opposes the notion of popular sovereignty; rather, by instructing the audience to “vote for Johnson,” it encourages the enactment of political agency through electoral channels. And yet, though it does not materially exclude citizens from formal mechanisms of political engagement, the commercial endeavors to dilute the political efficacy of the citizen. The disembodiment of the narrator, the depoliticization of the narrative, and the conflation of audience and child fundamentally alter the nature of the commercial’s reception. Moreover, the synthesis of technical jargon and simpering condescension further distance the audience from the dialogue. Once the presentation of political information is obscured by such rhetorical veneers, it becomes difficult for viewers to extract political insight from the advertisement, much less contest its truth claims. How does one effectively rebut the claim, for instance, that a child’s intake of high dosages of “strontium-90 or cesium-137” may cause death? Thus, the narrative structure of “Girl with Ice Cream Cone” not only omits large swathes of Goldwater’s substantive agenda, but also coerces the viewer into acknowledging its assertions as facts. This form of governance enables opportunistic political bodies to manipulate their constituencies through coercive strategies. And, when the subject matter is as weighty and exigent as the prevention of nuclear apocalypse, such rhetorical mediation functionally removes the “deliberative” aspect of deliberative democracy. By rendering the audience subservient to the disembodied narrator and thus an indirect, obedient consumer of information, the advertisement promotes a vision of democracy in which the informational passivity of the voter coexists uneasily with his or her purported agency to enact political change.

In examining such tensions, one must note that any proposed vision of governance is not comprised exclusively of its political program. Such programs are inevitably presented through rhetorical and audiovisual frames that are saturated with ideological baggage in their own right. For this reason, there exists analytical value in the act of separating the substance of political advocacy from its method of presentation. Improving one’s cognizance of the complex frames through which seemingly simplistic political narratives are delivered is a prerequisite to being not only a vigilant citizen, but also a vigilant critic of the inferred roles that citizens are often pressed to occupy. Furthermore, the method of reorienting our critical gaze from the content of political acts to their rhetorical, audiovisual frames should be adopted beyond the narrow scope of the “Girl with Ice Cream Cone” commercial. This critical method may engender a heightened awareness of how political programs forwarded through commercials, speeches, or other forms of presentations attempt to situate the audience in the broader economy of symbolic exchange between a ruling body and its subjects. Once the variables of presentation and viewership are emphasized in political criticism, we might have better means of engaging and subverting the process of rhetorical coercion inherent to political spectacle.





Works Cited

Johnson, Lyndon B. “Ice Cream.” Advertisement. 1964. Museum of the Moving Image. The Living Room Candidate: Presidential Campaign Commercials 1952-2008. Web. 20 February 2014.