Remembering the '1984' Super Bowl Mac ad

Remembering the '1984' Super Bowl Mac ad

Summary: The Macintosh made its debut during Super Bowl XVIII with the words: "On January 24, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you'll see why 1984 won't be like 1984."

TOPICS: Apple, Hardware
The fact that the Los Angeles Raiders humiliated the Washington Redskins in a 38-to-9 victory is a mere afterthought. Super Bowl XVIII's lasting legacy has been a single advertisement sandwiched somewhere in the third quarter: Apple Computer's iconic "1984" commercial.

It began, in a clear nod to George Orwell's novel of the same name, with tense strains of music, the image of figures marching through a tube across a dank industrial complex, and the start of a bizarre monologue: "Today we celebrate the first glorious anniversary of the Information Purification Directives."

Directed by Ridley Scott just a year after Blade Runner, "1984" debuted on January 22, 1984, and its narrative is now geek canon. Scores of blank-faced people are fixated on a broadcast of a Big Brother figure on a giant television screen, until a woman in bright athletic apparel sprints down a center aisle, wielding a hammer. She hurls it at the screen, which explodes into a bright white light. The expressions on the faces in the crowd morph into fascination.

The science fiction-like display of iconoclasm versus conformity is then explained in a message that appears onscreen: "On January 24, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you'll see why 1984 won't be like 1984."

In the entertainment industry, it was the dawn of the cinematic Super Bowl ad. For historians, it was a notable moment in Soviet-tinged pop culture. But in the tech world, this was the birth of Apple as we know it--25 years ago this week.

"That was certainly Apple's big debut," said Douglas Raybeck, a professor emeritus in Hamilton College's anthropology department who has written about the Cold War's role in pop culture and admits to being a decades-long Apple fan. "They were around before that. People knew of them. They had had some very clever little ads, but they must have bet the house on that one."

Indeed, they did; and in fact, it's become common knowledge that Apple's board of directors came close to canceling the TV spot altogether. Produced by agency Chiat/Day (which, in its current incarnation as part of TBWA, still creates Apple's ads) with a budget of $900,000, it was also one of the most expensive advertisements in television's history.

At the time, Apple was a long shot in the nascent PC market share wars and was far eclipsed by IBM in its "Big Blue" heyday: the company was taking a staggering gamble with a highbrow, allegory-infused ad that didn't even display the product onscreen.

"(Apple was) very oblique in the presentation of (its) product," Raybeck commented. "There was no computer shown. None of the marvelous graphics the Mac was capable of were in evidence, and what (was) displayed was very dark. The lighting was dark. The images were dark. And, of course, that was part of what they wanted to get across--that this dark, conforming, restricting environment can be broken through."

"It was a major statement at the time, and it's rare that you make a major statement like that and actually deliver on it in a way that we're still talking about 25 years later," said Ian Schafer, CEO of interactive-ad firm Deep Focus, who says he recalls seeing the original airing of the ad as a 9-year-old. "You make a bold statement about a revolution that you are going to start, and it's one that has resulted in the market share that they now have."

Apple didn't keep pushing the "1984" message. Although it went on to win an impressive handful of advertising awards, the commercial was never broadcast again. Nor did it usher in a true explosion of all things Mac. In 1985, founder Steve Jobs left the company after a power struggle with then-CEO John Sculley, kicking off a decade-long absence.

But "1984" was not forgotten: Its production served as the opening scene of The Pirates of Silicon Valley, the 1999 TV movie about Jobs' early years at Apple and his rivalry with Microsoft founder Bill Gates. And in 2007, the 24-year-old commercial was spoofed in a Web-based attack ad against Sen. Hillary Clinton, then vying for the Democratic presidential nomination.

"It's been 25 years, and I still remember the images," Raybeck said. "So it was, in that sense, very compelling, and I remember them not because I thought at the time, 'Oh, what a brilliant ad.' I later came to believe, 'Oh, what a brilliant ad,' because it sticks with you."

Not to mention the fact that Apple's underlying marketing message has remained arrow-straight over the past two and a half decades.

"In a few years, we may be talking about the 25th anniversary of the Think Different campaign," Ian Schafer said of the Apple ad slogan that first debuted in 1997, shortly after Jobs' return to the company, which placed Apple's logo in photographs of the likes of Alfred Hitchcock and John Lennon.

"That was another way of Apple talking about change, about intellect. You could make an argument that using Gandhi or John Lennon in an advertisement is almost blasphemous because these guys were bigger than whatever advertising claim you were about to make. These guys meant more to the world than your brand could ever be. But again, they were able to pull it off."

The legacy of "1984" remains present, too, in the current string of Mac ads, the witty Get a Mac series, which pit actor Justin Long as a cool-guy "Mac" in jeans and a hoodie against the incarnation of a "PC."

Played by comedian John Hodgman in hideously outdated business-formal attire, the doltishly unflappable thought process of the "PC" evokes a more twee strain of the conformity highlighted in "1984." It's Apple's same message, adapted for an age in which political commentary takes the form of The Colbert Report rather than Brazil.

"It's probably the most explicit statement of, basically, a cultural revolution," Douglas Raybeck said. "This is what they're saying--that this is new and really different and revolutionary."

But as "1984" turns 25, its images of conformity and totalitarianism have grown increasingly sprinkled with irony. It's the irony of the launches of both the iPhone and its iPhone 3G successor, reflected in the faces of the Apple "fanboys" willing to wait in line on the sidewalk for the better part of a week in the midst of a stifling New York summer and then--wait for it--descend into the underground Fifth Avenue store in formation as uniformed Apple retail employees guided them through a gauntlet. As critics of the "Apple cult" have pointed out, they seem to be willing to believe their fearless leader's every word.

The irony of "1984" is there, too, in the conflicting reports over Steve Jobs' health that put the spotlight on Apple's tight-lipped corporate culture and shadowy PR-speak, making Cupertino seem much less like the lone runner and more like the image of Big Brother onscreen. And it was there when journalist Dan Lyons anonymously satirized Apple in his "Fake Steve Jobs" blog, as though the CEO were a corrupt monarch worthy of a Jonathan Swift-like tongue-lashing.

Over the years, Apple's market share has indeed grown, and it has come to be a force in the music and entertainment industries with iTunes and the iPod, not to mention the telecommunications business with the iPhone. Like a populist revolution that becomes a little too successful, its trademark gutsiness and cult following start to look less like a scrappy innovator and more like, well, a sprawling conglomerate bent on global domination.

But even that might not matter. Marketing, even marketing of "1984"-caliber brilliance, has to be bolstered by a worthy product, Ian Schafer said.

"I think that people are willing to look past that," he said of the occasional Apple-Big Brother parallels. "At the end of the day, keep making a great product, keep delivering on your promise, and I will continue to be a loyal consumer. That's the value exchange that happens between a brand and a consumer...(They've) built up enough equity in the consumer's emotional bank account, which Apple can afford to make withdrawals from every so often."

This article by Carolyn McCarthy was originally published on CNET

Topics: Apple, Hardware

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • The irony certainly not lost on me

    [i]But as "1984" turns 25, its images of conformity and totalitarianism have grown increasingly sprinkled with irony.[/i]

    Apple has become that which they used to fight against. Luckily for them, they have an army of mindless drones apologizing for them all the way to the bank.
    • What is that, exactly?

      [i]"Apple has become that which they used to fight

      What is that, exactly?
      • Ans: The Big Brother

        The totalitarian big brother my friend.

        From oppressing freedom of speech (think secret) to rudiculous restrictive iPhone development NDA and app approval process, Apple is behaving like a Big Brother in every possible way.
        • No...

          No, because you have the option to use something else.

          In the late 70s and early 80s, your options were IBM. That's it.
          • Yes... 1984 has nothing on Apple's methods

            One needs only to spend some time on the Apple forums. Most messages that are critical disappear down the memory hole.

            Jobs himself is a perfect example of doublespeak, with his salesman's RDF.

            Hardware and software problems rarely spoken of, until they're fixed. Then they act as if it never happened.
          • Not like you

            who runs right into your boss everytime you screw up and announce it to
            the world, calling the press and telling everyone in the company cafeteria
            that you have just done a MFU.

            Really, I'll bet you don't even have a job!!!
          • It's about taking responsibility

            My job consists of creating handheld touchscreen apps that are used by tens of thousands. When there's a screwup, you bet that we immediately send out a notice with a workaround.

            Apple, on the other hand, tends towards pretending nothing is wrong, in the hopes that it won't be noticed by the press at large. And it often works.

            Other times, they have to be sued to finally acknowledge a problem, such as has happened lately with iPod batteries and screens.
    • Yeah, if you want to be anti-establishment now... need to do it with Linux. :-)
      Henry Miller
  • Remember UNIX back in 1969?

    it's more stable than the Mac. Oh, and it's still maintaining more databases than the Mac.
    • OS X is BSD UNIX. [nt]

  • Memories

    I worked for Apple back in 1984 as a Sales Rep, and was in the audience that afternoon at the annual Apple Sales Conference in Hawaii when Jobs introduced the 1984 ad. The Lisa had been out for a year, and though it was brilliant technology, it had failed miserably to catch on with the Fortune 1000 companies, which had been the target market. While the Apple II was still selling briskly, the handwriting was on the wall--Apple had to find a new winner, and fast.

    We all knew about the secret Mac project, which was basically a cheap version of Lisa. That sales conference was our first introduction to the 128k (that's right, 128KB of ram) Mac.

    When we saw the ad, we were stunned beyond words and screamed our heads off. Many of us were hoarse the next day. It certainly didn't hurt for all us guys (nearly all the sales force was male) that the heroine was a braless young woman who showed a kind of, ahem, "bounce" in her step.

    The irony, as others have mentioned, is that Apple is now, in many ways, the "Big Brother" that the ad denounced. But back then it was IBM and the inane DOS operating system. We all had the WYSIWYG religion back in those days, long before Microsoft's Windows.

    Oh, and the Board HAD canceled the SuperBowl spot, and was asking the ad agency to try to sell the time to someone else without suffering too great a loss. But Jobs and others convinced them otherwise.
  • RE: Remembering the '1984' Super Bowl Mac ad

    I still have my Mac classic now although it doesn't get the daily use it deserves anymore!! I still absoloutely love it and most amazing it still works perfectly. Brilliant piece of kit.
    • Mac Ad, 1984

      That was probably the most brilliant spot of advert I've ever seen! Even though it was a decade after it showed up that I actually saw it for the first time...

      I have loved the Mac since my earliest times using one - I think it was maybe an LC, one of the really thin "pizza box" desktops.

      Years later, sometime around 2000 or so, I got a Mac SE 30 with a 20mb HDD and a 1.44mb floppy. That was a GREAT little machine, actually might have been a bit earlier around '97. Either way though, I used that little SE for a Hypercard application monster! I had catalogs and databases of all sorts of stuff, I even used it bedside as my bedroom phone book next to my caller ID phone! It worked wonders to light up the room at night, too... just bump the mouse for a 10minute night light.

      Then, in 2004, someone broke into the computer shop I was working at, got into the storage room that I had some of my personal equipment in, and stole my SE 30, my only Mac Keyboard and Mouse, as they were all packed in my black, padded MacBag (a perfectly shaped and zippered, padded, multi-pocketed nylon bag built specifically for the SE-type Macs.)

      The police were useless, and I never got anything out of it from the building insurance, and I lost a friend over it for a long time because he was the most likely suspect and the shop owner banned him from the store.

      Now, I have a Powerbook 1400CS which is really sweet, but practically useless at this point because it's not got any usable networking medium - no ethernet, and definitely no wireless.

      But, it's a great laptop, even if it is limited to so little memory.
    • Remembering...

      When I first started looking for a computer, I was looking at the IBM-PC, the Atari ST, and the never-did-show-up 68k version of Radio Shack's Color Computer. Eventually, I narrowed it down to three: Macintosh, NeXT, and Sun.

      Only the Macintosh SE/x (or "SE/30" if you prefer) had the power I wanted at a price I could afford. By saving for seven months, I was able to come up with the 3763.44 dollars for the computer, keyboard, shipping, sales tax, and what all else.

      It worked very well for Me. Programming, desktop publishing, mathematics, 3D design, PostScript graphics (on My printer), letters to mom, PhotoShop, videocassette and TV program databases, other databases, too, it did any of these any time I turned it on. I never needed to re-configure anything.

      Being detail-oriented, I had My system software backed up on diskettes. The diskettes merely needed to be copied to a blank drive. All the file numbers and folder names were pre-configured so that only this simple restore was needed to have a complete working system. Well, I did include some applications, too.

      I have used IBM-PCs, Macintosh, Wintels, and OSX. Macintosh is the clear winner for ease of use: It does things in a logical manner, much the way I do things. The other three are painful to use.

      When put in storage---I moved---My Quadra 840 was still working well, downloading hundreds of megabytes every day over 56k dial-up, and doing most any job I wanted done. It was thirteen and one-half years old. What else still works <b><i>and works well!</i></b> at that age????

      Now I use a G4 Quicksilver. It is seven years old, but except for OSX, I like it.

      A word of advice for all you fanbois out there (and you know who you are): Instead of bad-mouthing a product you do not own... tell Us why YOUR product is superior to the product you haven't got! Maybe those who are not fans of your product could use your advice.

      'Course in the early days, Macintosh was <b>FUN</b> to use. Many people made lots of programs and stacks just for fun, as well as for 'productivity'. User groups were attended by (mostly) helpful people, and sharing and communicating were the order of the day.
      Nowadays everything is run by yuppies, and has almost everything interesting drained from it! Computers, too. Apple ceased being a computer company, and became a Fortune 400 company with the same location and surface appearance. Oh, well!
      Master Dave
  • RE: Remembering the '1984' Super Bowl Mac ad

    Nothing there Bro
  • Why are we remembering this?

    Is the article writer just an Apple enthusiast combined with a slow news day?

    "Apple Computer's iconic "1984" commercial" should be changed to "Apple Computer's IRONIC "1984" commercial". Apple is truly the big brother of the electronics world.
    • Because we should remember milestones

      I saw the ad when it was originally broadcast. I didn't own a computer, and didn't want to. Only 5 or 6 years later did I see a place for a computer in my life, and there was no hesitation: it had to be a Mac. It was, and so has every one since then.

      "The computer for the rest of us" was one of the most accurate slogans I've ever heard. The thing that makes the commercial <b>iconic</b>, NOT <b>ironic</b> is that IBM and DOS <b>were</b> Big Brother before the Mac. Apple has some unique business practices, but they don't pressure you to become one of the majority. They simply make a beautiful product. Beautiful, not perfect, but light years ahead of "the other guys".