SAN DIEGO, January 22, 2014 – Thirty years ago today, during the 1984 Super Bowl broadcast, 60 seconds in the remarkable life of founder Steve Jobs was enough to change the nature of television commercials and the approach to advertising forever.
To announce its exciting new product, the Macintosh personal computer, Jobs and Apple CEO John Sculley wanted to do something special to launch it.
Working with the advertising agency Chiat/Day with copy by writer Steve Hayden, the vision of art director Brent Thomas and creative director Lee Clow, they created a TV commercial inspired by the themes of the George Orwell novel “1984” and the visual world depicted in the film “Blade Runner” by director Ridley Scott, released the year before to great acclaim. Scott was hired to direct the commercial, and was given a budget of $900,000, the highest ever to date at the time. Scott himself was paid another $600,000.
The team took a chance and bought airtime during the biggest stage the world had to offer at the time. On January 22, 1984, the commercial aired to an audience of 96 million early in the third quarter of Super Bowl XVIII, in which the Los Angeles Raiders defeated the Washington Redskins.
The rest is advertising and media history. The commercial went on to win the Grand Prize of Cannes, dozens of advertising industry awards and is considered the best television commercial ever made by scores of critics. But like so much of history, Apple’s “1984” has become the stuff of half-truths and mistruths.
Jobs questioned Chiat/Day’s decision to buy time to air the ad on the Super Bowl. The ad’s copywriter Steve Hayden reports that Jobs said, “I don’t know a single person who watches the Super Bowl.” He later took the agency’s advice and authorized it to go ahead.
The Apple board initially refused to pay for the commercial. Jobs showed the commercial to retired Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak. He was impressed and told Jobs he thought the commercial was so good and so important to Apple’s future that he offered to write a personal check for half the cost of the commercial himself. Thankfully, the board left the decision to Jobs and Chiat/Day and Woz was off the hook.
Most people believe the ad was never shown on television other than its Super Bowl airing. But the ad had aired before the Super Bowl and aired several times after, although never to a single national audience.
According to The Mac Bathroom Reader by Owen Linzmayer, Chiat/Day wanted the commercial to qualify for ad industry awards competition, so it paid $10 to run the commercial once on Idaho Falls, Idaho television station KMVT. It ran before the station signed off on December 15, 1983 at 12:59 a.m.
The commercial also aired in a 30-second version in the ten largest television markets in the United States right before the Super Bowl.
“1984” ran in movie theaters for five days before the Super Bowl. One theater owner was reportedly so enthralled by it, he ran it for a month after the advertising buy was over.
The ad’s toughest critics nearly killed it before audiences got a chance to see it. In an interview for the 20th anniversary of the commercial in 2004, copywriter Hayden said after the commercial was first played for the Apple board of directors in late 1983, the board members said nothing as the lights came up. Finally, board chairman Mike Markula said, “Can I get a motion to fire the ad agency?”
Scott admitted in a 1996 interview with the website BRmovie.com he took the assignment because he liked the atmosphere of the production and the fact he didn’t have to show the product. He didn’t even know how to use a computer when he directed the commercial.
The commercial itself was shot in Great Britain at Shepperton Studios in London. Scott couldn’t find enough actors willing to shave their heads to play the part of the punky-looking drones, so he paid real skinheads 125 pounds to appear in the ad.
Scott also struggled to find a woman to play the athlete in the commercial. It had been his idea to change the original script direction to have the woman throw a hammer and use a sledgehammer instead. The problem was that the models and actresses who looked the part weren’t able to throw the heavier sledgehammer, the action central to the commercial. Fortunately Scott found discus thrower and athlete Anya Major at a gym and cast her in the pivotal role, because she could spin without getting dizzy and heave the sledgehammer accurately.
Seconds after the commercial aired in the third quarter of what turned out to be a blow out Super Bowl game, switchboards at CBS, Chiat/Day, and Apple blew up with phone calls asking about the commercial. It got more headlines the next day than the game. Most local TV stations replayed it in its entirety. More people saw it the next day than originally saw it on the Super Bowl. Apple made up the entire cost of the ad in its first day of Macintosh sales.
The commercial almost single-handedly made the Super Bowl the place to make a statement to achieve overnight brand success, to launch the big new product, new movie, new car. Now many Americans watch the Super Bowl for the commercials rather than the actual football game.
Thirty years later, Apple may not be the 2014 equivalent of Big Brother, but it is a half billion dollar company (give or take a few million) whose products have changed how we communicate, how we use technology for pleasure as well as for commerce, and for many people, Apple changed how they think. It is more Marshall McLuhan than George Orwell. Apple provided the medium, and we got the message.
Give this some heavy thought as you watch dancing animals, cute kids, and various celebrities selling you beer, cars, and a different kind of chip on Super Bowl Sunday.
(Written on an Apple MacBookPro by a recent and thoroughly convinced convert rescued from the PC).
Gayle Lynn Falkenthal, APR, is President/Owner of the Falcon Valley Group in San Diego, California. Read more Media Migraine in Communities Digital News.
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