For all its faults, the National Football League does some things very well. Most of them are associated with marketing, at which it's brilliant. And perhaps its most brilliant marketing stunt is to convince people that they should watch the Super Bowl telecast for the commercials.
Think of the genius of this idea. It draws in viewers who have no interest in football. It prods viewers into hanging in front of the TV even through a lousy game. Blowout by halftime? There's still 2 1/2 hours of ads, isn't there? It provides secondary promotional grist for newspapers and TV talk shows in the days leading up to the game, and then another bounce in the days following the game, when the talk turns to reviewing the ads we saw on Super Sunday.
The process is well underway. NPR this week ran a piece about how, nowadays, you can catch the ads online before the game, and took the opportunity to run the ads and comment on them (and also to link to at least one news story about one of the ads — how very meta). NPR's piece both observed that the Super Bowl ads are "already generating buzz" and contributed to the buzz itself, which one supposes is buzz squared.
ABC News and CNN have both run features, though they're visibly straining for news pegs — CNN's is that one of the ads features the voice of actor Alan Rickman, who died in January. Because, you know, it's never happened before that a film actor's performance has outlived him.
All these articles carefully avoid telling the truth about Super Bowl ads, which is that the vast majority of them aren't any good. They're stupid or crass or ineffective, just like the TV commercials that run at all hours during the other 364 days of the year. What makes them worse is that they're all trying to outdo the one Super Bowl ad that really was great — so great that it established the very idea that Super Bowl ads are special.
We're talking about Apple's ad for the original Macintosh computer, which ran once during the 1984 Super Bowl. Directed by Ridley Scott, it set the standard and broke the mold in a single 60-second span. Advertisers have been trying to outdo the "1984" ad ever since, but have succeeded only in plumbing new depths of lame.
We made this very point two years ago, on the 30th anniversary of the "1984" ad. The gist of that column is reproduced below, in slightly edited form.
Apple's "1984" ad for the original Macintosh computer ran in its full 60-second length only once on national television — during the third quarter of Super Bowl 18, on Jan. 22, 1984. (It was shown a month earlier on a TV station in Twin Falls, Idaho, to preserve its eligibility for advertising awards, and subsequently with previews in some movie theaters.)
Directed by Ridley Scott, who already had "Alien" and "Blade Runner" under his belt, this is the ad that created the Super Bowl's annual commercial frenzy that today bores so many of us silly. For 30 years, ad agencies and their clients have been trying to top it, but no one has come close. Instead we've gotten three decades of (let's face it) lame disappointments — funny ads, emotional ads, sexy ads, animated and live-action ads, glossily professional and do-it-yourself ads. Yawn.
Judging TV commercials by their artistic content is often an exercise in condescension, but there's no denying that Ridley Scott's product is a marvel of concise storytelling (and marketing). That the ad ran in 1984 was happenstance, but Apple's ad agency, Chiat/Day, certainly made the most of the confluence with George Orwell's dystopian classic "1984." The ad featured gray-garbed drones marching in step to a Big Brother's Stalinist harangue, interrupted by a lithe tank-topped blond chased by storm troopers. Just before fade-out comes the pitch: "On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you'll see why 1984 won't be like '1984.'"
It's hard to think of a television commercial whose history is so thoroughly documented as "1984." A chronicling by veteran Apple historian Owen Linzmeyer can be found here. The hardest part to cast, the rebellious blond, went to a British discus thrower named Anya Major because she could spin around to launch her liberating mallet at the video image of Big Brother without getting dizzy.
Prior to its airing, the commercial was championed by Steve Jobs, doubted by Apple CEO John Sculley (who had been imported from PepsiCo to serve as adult supervision for the youthful company), and hated by the board of directors. Despite the board's opposition, Apple's marketing executives made the final decision to keep their one-minute buy for the Super Bowl telecast, which would be a veritable festival of home-computing commercials: Apple's air time was shoehorned among ads for PCs from Radio Shack (pitchman: Bill Bixby), Atari (Alan Alda), and IBM (Charlie Chaplin).
The IBM PC and its clones soon came to dominate the home and office computer market, but Apple's "1984" commercial still reigns as a marketing milestone. There can only be one. Thirty years from now, ad agencies will still be trying to outdo it, and failing.