Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Remembering Tony Schwartz: Master of Propaganda

Tony Schwartz died at age 84 this past weekend. He was best known for the famous or infamous "daisy ad" that Lyndon Johnson ran against Barry Goldwater in the 1964 Presidential campaign. The ad featured a little girl counting petals on a daisy, followed by a nuclear explosion (see YouTube clip below). It was designed to paint Goldwater as a war monger, who could bring the world to ruin. It was famous because it succeeded (without mentioning Goldwater by name). It was infamous because of the way it succeeded. The ad was pulled after one showing on NBC, but was replayed numerous times on evening news shows. That's where I first saw it. I and many other professors have cited this ad for years as a masterpiece of propaganda, with all the good and bad that that can entail.

But I actually knew Tony Schwartz in another, though related way. He was one of Marshall McLuhan's disciples in the 1960s. Tony Schwartz's specialty was what McLuhan would call "acoustic space" - the unique way, or very different from seeing, that sound is perceived by us and can influence us. That way is, mainly, that you don't have to look at it, as you do with an image. In fact, sound can reach us any time it likes, from anyplace in the environment, wherever we may be looking or not. Tony Schwartz put lots of insights like that into his best-known book, The Responsive Chord.

I cited and built upon that book in my doctoral dissertation (Human Replay: A Theory of the Evolution of Media) and my own much later book about McLuhan, Digital McLuhan: A Guide to the Information Millennium, in which I wrote about why radio survived the advent of television in the 1950s. The reason was that radio's presentations - hearing without seeing - are an entirely natural mode of communication. The world grows dark every night but not really silent, we can easily close our eyes but not ever our ears, etc. (In contrast, silent movies did not survive the introduction of talkies - there is no natural niche of seeing without hearing.)

As a Master's student at the New School for Social Research in the 1970s, I was privileged to visit Tony's studio in Manhattan, along with my class, several times. He sat at a desk surrounded by tape recorders and other pre-computer equipment. It felt like a scene out of a 1950s science fiction movie.

The history of propaganda is still being written - more so now than ever in this Presidential campaign. Tony Schwartz will have a permanent place in there, along with Leni Riefenstahl and Michael Moore - but much closer to Moore in the good that both have done for progressive causes.

Responsive Chord by Tony Schwartz

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