Features

My favourite ad of all time: Apple Mac’s ‘1984’ Super Bowl campaign

Creative agency Chiat/Day fought hard to get this Blade Runner dystopian epic by a stony-faced Apple board of directors – if only they had known they were about to make Super Bowl history, writes JWT's Guan Hin Tay

Thirty-four years ago, Apple computer aired an epic Super Bowl commercial in its history.

No other commercial has ever achieved the same status.

Released during an intense political climate, which saw Ronald Reagan’s regime fighting a fierce diplomatic war against communist nations, this campaign was a provocative statement against American foreign affairs.

Opening with the whitish-blue aftermath of the cataclysmic event, the ad shows a tyrannical, Big Brother-style head – amusingly characterised as rival IBM – trying to convince the masses on a big screen.

A woman, in a white tank top with a cubist picture of Apple’s Macintosh computer, runs aggressively. She hurls a big hammer, probably a symbol of the hammer and sickle connected with communism, towards the screen, at the time when Big Brother announces: “We shall prevail”. In a flurry of flash and haze, the screen smashed.

As the people become free from brainwashing and able think for themselves, an ominous voiceover reads: “On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like ‘1984.’”

This scenario is straight out from George Orwell’s classic novel 1984, which shows how a dystopian society is kept imprisoned by the state through technology.

The connection to 1984, matched with the international communist movement, played flawlessly on the sentiment of Americans as well as their assumptions.

“This film gambled to win the audience’s trust for their product. And it did.”

The thought of being controlled by one tyrant, and Orwell’s book, fuelled panic, prompting the nation to think technology was corrupt and would kill society. Technology in the early 1980s was so new that people were scared. They didn’t know what to expect.

This film gambled to win the audience’s trust for their product. And it did. Hypnotised by the Ridley’s Scott direction and cutting-edge cinematography and the fascinating hope of Apple’s technology, buyers, flooded electronics stores across the country when the Macintosh launched, going on to purchase US$155 million worth of Apple, three months after launch.

According to Fred Goldberg’s book, The Insanity of Advertising, a former Apple ad account manager revealed that when he sent the ad for testing, he was informed it was one of the least-effective commercials ever put in front of an audience. If Apple listened to this focus group, what kind of commercial would have been made? Probably something not as epic by far.

Even the mighty Steve Jobs had a hard time convincing Apple’s board of directors to approve the ad. According to Steve Hayden, from Chiat/Day who conceptualised the script, the board sat in silence after it was presented. Chairman Mike Markula urged his colleagues to fire the agency responsible.

Brent Thomas, the Chiat/Day art director on the project, said. “If the people that you had to first present to hated it, Jobs was going to like it. And conversely, if it went the other way, you knew Steve would kill it.”

Even though Apple had already spent US$650,000 to make ‘1984’, they wanted to sell off the two minutes of Super Bowl advertising they had already bought. Goldberg says that the agency was only able to sell the two 30-second slots before running out of time. Rather than showing a blank screen during US$250,000 worth of airtime, Apple ran ‘1984’, and the rest is history.

If this ad was shown again today, would it be just as relatable? We are more adaptable using technology as it has now become part of our daily lives, but the fear of technology replacing us by becoming smarter still scares us.

Hollywood produces far too many films focused on the worn subject of ‘robots taking over the world’. So of course people are worried about the idea of tech advancing beyond our control.

Will there be another epic commercial like ‘1984’ ever again?

Perhaps.

But all the stars will need to be aligned again to achieve a considerable feat such as this.

Guan Hin Tay is the executive creative director of J. Walter Thompson South East Asia 

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