Today marks the 30th anniversary of Apple’s famous “1984” television ad that aired on January 22, 1984 during the third quarter of the Super Bowl XVIII between the Los Angeles Raiders and Washington Redskins. Historian Eric Hintz describes how the “1984” ad and the introduction of the Apple Macintosh were key milestones both in the history of computing and the history of advertising.
The Super Bowl is a cultural event that attracts the attention of more than just football fans. In 2013, Super Bowl XLVII was the third most watched telecast of all time, with an average viewership of 108.7 million people. With so many eyeballs tuned in, advertisers bring out some of their best work and casual fans tune in for the groundbreaking TV commercials as much as for the game. Who could forget Steelers Hall of Famer “Mean” Joe Greene selling Coca-Cola (1979) or the Budweiser guys coining “Wassuuuup?!?” (2000) as everyone’s new favorite catchphrase? However, Apple’s “1984” ad during Super Bowl XVIII is arguably the most famous Super Bowl commercial of all time.
In 1983, the personal computing market was up for grabs. Apple was selling its Apple II like hotcakes but was facing increasing competition from IBM’s PC and “clones” made by Compaq and Commodore. Meanwhile, Apple, led by Steve Jobs, was busy developing its new Macintosh computer. Remember that in 1983, most businesses and governments still employed large, expensive, and technically intimidating mainframes. And while the first personal computers of the early 1980s were smaller and less intimidating, they still featured black screens with green text-based commands like C:\> run autoexec.bat.
Drawing inspiration from the pioneering Xerox Alto and improving on the underperforming Apple Lisa, Jobs and the Apple team built the Apple Macintosh with several revolutionary new features we now take for granted. A handheld input device called a “mouse.” A graphical user interface with overlapping “windows” and menus. Clickable pictures called “icons.” Cut-copy-paste editing. In short, Jobs and his team were creating an “insanely great” personal computer that was intuitive and easy to use—one he hoped would shake-up the PC market. At the same time, Apple had recently lured marketing whiz John Sculley away from Pepsi to be the firm’s new chief executive. Sculley, who had masterminded the “Pepsi Generation” campaign, raised Apple’s ad budget from $15 million to $100 million in his first year.
Apple hired the Los Angeles advertising firm Chiat/Day to launch the Macintosh in early 1984; the account team was led by creative director Lee Clow, copywriter Steve Hayden, and art director Brent Thomas. The trio developed a concept inspired by George Orwell’s dystopian novel, 1984, in which The Party, run by the all-seeing Big Brother, kept the proletariat in check with constant surveillance by the Thought Police. In the ad, IBM’s “Big Blue” would be cast as Big Brother, dominating the computer industry with its dull conformity, while Apple would re-write the book’s ending so that the Macintosh metaphorically defeats the regime. To direct the commercial, Chiat/Day hired British movie director Ridley Scott who’d perfected the cinematic look and feel of dystopian futures in Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982). The 60-second mini-film was shot in one week at a production cost of about $500,000. Two hundred extras were paid $125 a day to shave their heads, march in lock-step, and listen to Big Brother’s Stalinist gibberish. Shot in dark, blue-gray hues to evoke IBM’s Big Blue, the only splashes of color were the bright red running shorts of the protagonist, an athletic young woman who sprints through the commercial carrying a sledgehammer, and Apple’s rainbow logo. The commercial never showed the actual computer, but ended with a tease: “On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like ‘1984.’”
When shown the finished ad in late 1983, Apple’s board members hated it. Sculley, the Apple CEO, instructed Chiat/Day to sell back both the 30 and 60-second time slots they’d purchased from CBS for $1 million, but they were only able to unload the 30 second slot. Apple was faced with the prospect of eating the $500,000 production costs of an ad that could really only air during calendar year 1984, so it swallowed hard and let the ad run once during the third quarter of the Super Bowl. Some 43 million Americans saw the ad, and when the football game returned, CBS announcers Pat Summerall and John Madden asked one another, “Wow, what was that?”
The ad, of course, was a sensation. The commercial’s social and political overtones held particular resonance in the mid-1980s, as the United States and Soviet Union were still engaged in an ideological Cold War. And, like Lyndon Johnson’s famous “Daisy” ad from the 1964 presidential campaign, the ad aired only once in primetime, but was replayed again and again on the network news that evening as the ad itself became a buzz-worthy source of free publicity. But even the mystique of the single airing wasn’t entirely true. Chiat/Day had quietly run the ad one other time, at 1 a.m. on December 15, 1983 on KMVT in Twin Falls, Idaho, so that the advertisement qualified for the 1983 advertising awards. As expected, the ad won several prestigious awards, including the Grand Prize at the Cannes International Advertising Festival (1984) and Advertising Age’s 1980s “Commercial of the Decade.” But the ad’s most enduring legacy is that it cemented the Super Bowl as each year’s blockbuster moment for advertisers and their clients.
While the ad aired during the Super Bowl on January 22, it merely pointed to Macintosh’s official debut two days later. On January 24, 1984, Apple held its annual shareholders meeting at the Flint Center auditorium on the campus of De Anza College, just a block from Apple’s offices in Cupertino, California. After dispensing with the formalities of board votes and quarterly earnings statements, the real show began. Steve Jobs walked on stage in a double-breasted suit and bow tie and rallied the troops by tweaking his chief rival: “IBM wants it all and is aiming its guns on its last obstacle to industry control, Apple. Will Big Blue dominate the entire computer industry, the entire information age? Was George Orwell right?”
Jobs then presented perhaps the greatest new product demonstration in history. Jobs walked over to a black bag, unzipped it, and set up the Macintosh to wild applause. Then Jobs inserted a floppy disk and started the demonstration of the Mac’s windows, menus, fonts, and drawing tools, all set to the stirring theme from Chariots of Fire. Then, the Mac spoke for itself: “Hello, I am Macintosh…”
So when you watch the Super Bowl on February 2 this year, it’s possible that the ads will overshadow the game. And for that you can thank Apple’s Macintosh, Chiat/Day and “1984.”