30 years later, there’s still been only one great Super Bowl ad


Of course it’s Apple’s “1984” ad for the original Macintosh computer.

The ad 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 Orwell’s “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 24, 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 PC ads from Radio Shack (pitchman: Bill Bixby), Atari (Alan Alda), and IBM (Charlie Chaplin).

The IBM PC and its clones soon dominated the computer market, but the “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.