Remembering the '1984' Super Bowl Mac ad

Twenty-five years ago, the landmark commercial paved the way for big-budget television advertisements and brought Apple into the mainstream.

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 not long after Blade Runner, "1984" aired 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.

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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 Super Bowl 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."

See the rest of our Mac anniversary coverage here.

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About the author

Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.

 

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