Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search

From Political Ad Man to Nightclub Comic

Tony Schwartz talks about his life in advertising - as captured in his act, `The Humorous Side of Political Commercials'

By Jonathan RoweStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 21, 1989


IT is still probably the most controversial political ad ever in America. A little girl is plucking petals from a daisy. The voiceover segues into an ominous countdown. Then a nuclear explosion, followed by apocalyptic oratory from then-President Lyndon Johnson. ``We must love each other, or we must die.''

Skip to next paragraph

Commentators said it was the start of video nastiness in American campaigns. (Four years later, of course, Johnson's words would have an ironic twist.) But earlier this month in New York, Tony Schwartz offered a somewhat surprising rejoinder. Schwartz is the media wizard who made the ``Daisy'' spot, and he said that originally, he did it for the United Nations. That is why the ad never mentions Senator Barry Goldwater, the Republican candidate, explicitly or by implication.

When LBJ's ad agency called, Schwartz just ``pulled it off a shelf,'' he says, tacking the Johnson lines onto the end. He claims he didn't even know of Goldwater's rash statements regarding nuclear weapons that many assumed the spot was aimed at. The viewers supplied that Goldwater connection themselves.

No doubt, Johnson's strategists figured as much. Still, Schwartz offers the episode as proof of his operating premise regarding media: that it works much like music, not imparting information, but rather evoking what the audience already feels or knows. The Daisy spot, he says, was ``just what people brought to it from what was stored in their minds.''

Schwartz [pictured in sequence at right] was speaking at a rather unlikely forum: Chez Beauvais, a nightclub next to his home on West 56th Street here in New York, where he is appearing on Tuesday nights through September.

Politics being show business, Schwartz has turned political advertising into a nightclub act. Amidst a desultory mayoral race - ``Is Anybody Still Awake?'' Newsday asked, after a televised debate - Schwartz's is probably the best political act in town.

It's also a lot more. If Schwartz sees media as a form of music, its because he himself is really a musician. He doesn't sell candidates and products; he conveys the inner experience of things, with an emotional nuance rare in media generally - let alone advertising. In Schwartz's hands, a long-distance telephone call becomes a moving personal experience (``Reach out and touch.'')

Billed simply as ``The Humorous Side of Political Commercials,'' the nightclub show is really a first take at an audio biography of one of the nation's most original and inventive media artists. It could be called, ``My Life in Sound.''

That life began over 40 years ago, when Schwartz was a young commercial artist out of Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. His hobby was lugging a 16-pound Swiss tape recorder all over Manhattan.

He was recording the sounds of the city - cab drivers and harbor ships and children at play. Schwartz made records for Folkways and Columbia that Nat Hentoff, the music critic, called ``a startling reminder of the uniqueness of the familiar.''

Schwartz had his own radio show on WNYC. He didn't have to look for work. It came to him - first major corporations, then political candidates. Marlon Brando and Tennessee Williams heard his tapes at a party, and enlisted him as a Saturday fixture at a nightclub they partly owned, called the Baq Room.

In the wrong hands, Schwartz's talents would be dangerous. But he works only on products he considers benign. In recent years, he's devoted much time to his one-man media campaigns against smoking and other public health problems. He's also written two books.

Schwartz's show at Chez Beauvais is a sprightly summation of this work. It also reinforces another of his pet theories: that television touches us primarily through the ear. Audio tapes of Schwartz's TV ads work just as well as the video versions, if not better.

``Try taking a picture of television,'' he tells the audience. ``Its just not there.''