Column: A reminder that Apple’s ‘1984' ad is the only great Super Bowl commercial ever — and it’s now 33 years old
George Orwell’s novel “1984” is hitting the bestseller lists again, having been moved in bookstores from the “dystopian science fiction” shelves to the “current affairs” section. But today let’s talk about another iteration of “1984”: Ridley Scott’s television commercial that year for the then-new Apple Macintosh.
As we reported in 2014, on its 30th anniversary, the “1984” ad aired on national television in its full 60-second form only once, during Super Bowl XVIII on Jan. 22, 1984. It became a legend almost immediately. More to the point, it established Super Bowl TV commercials as a thing, garnering almost as much PR attention as the game itself. (Sometimes more.) This week, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to get sneak peaks at Sunday’s commercials. Then on Monday you can ponder along with Matt, Al, Hoda, Steve, Brian, Tom, Dick, and Harry which ones were the cleverest, most outrageous, filthiest, most heartwarming, stupidest, dullest … you name it.
It bears repeating that elevating the Super Bowl commercials to the level of events-within-the-event is genius. I wrote last year about how this draws in viewers who have no interest in football and prods them into sticking with the telecast even through a lousy game. 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.
What’s generally unmentioned in all the palaver is that there really has been only one great Super Bowl commercial, and it’s the 1984 Macintosh ad. If you haven’t seen it, the commercial begins in gray, with an army of drones marching into an assembly as a Big Brother figure harangues them from a towering screen: “Today we celebrate the first glorious anniversary of the Information Purification Directives ...”
The scene is intercut with shots of a blond woman in a white tank top and bright red shorts on the run, carrying a mallet, pursued by storm troopers. She bursts into the assembly and flings the mallet at the screen, unleashing an explosion and a blast of fresh air, as a voice-over reads the text of a product launch scheduled for two days hence: “On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like ‘1984.’”
For 33 years Madison Avenue has been trying to emulate it, match it or outdo it, and failing every time.
But trying to recapture the magic of a unique artifact is a mug’s game. There can be only one “1984” ad, just as there can be only one Hoover Dam or one Eiffel Tower. Everything else is a copy.
I made this point four years ago, on the 30th anniversary of the “1984" ad. That original 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 XVIII 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 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 airtime 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.