30 years of Mac ads: How the rebel became a cause

It began as a rage against the machine. But how did Apple's ads help the Mac be seen as ultimately not part of the machine? Or did the ads matter not so much at all?

Chris Matyszczyk
8 min read
It started with a bald man who wore glasses. Apple/YouTube screenshot

This article is part of a CNET special report on the 30th anniversary of the Macintosh, looking at the beginnings of Apple's landmark machine and its impact over the past three decades.

They mumble it already in the bars of Cupertino. Well, if they can get away to those bars, that is.

"Where were you when the upstart accused the big, blue corporate suits of being Big Brother?"

Everyone in America was talking about it. It was Super Bowl Sunday in 1984, and the Washington Redskins were being humiliated by, of all teams, the Oakland Raiders, so you had to talk about something.

Here were these Apple people, represented by a blond lady in red shorts, hurling a hammer at IBM.

Red shorts, get it? These were the people's champions come to liberate the world from the corporatist oppressors. These were the rebels come to defend the people against monotony, against the technological lobotomy.

"1984" got everyone talking. That didn't mean it got everyone buying.

Though detractors love to talk about "marketing" and "reality distortion" as if Apple's success was somehow faked by pretty pictures and charming music, they forget that the best Apple ads were always the products, not the things in print and on TV.

Every time people saw a Mac in an office or a home, they were drawn in. The products themselves had character, which made advertising them a far more attractive proposition.

You might imagine that once Apple had set itself up as a rebellious defender of humanity, it ran more ads that called IBM names such as "fat cat."

Instead, it ran ads that reflected charm and impishness, but not the aggression of that dystopian opener.

"Take Macintosh Out For A Test Drive" isn't exactly a snarling challenge.

A rebel? Or merely cute?

Computers weren't exactly familiar or friendly objects. As one Mac launch ad revealed: "Of The 235 Million People In America, Only A Fraction Can Use A Computer."

But even at this very early stage, it was obvious that Apple had decided Mac would represent humanity, which was, in many ways, the antithesis of technology. (It still is, in the view of some.)

Those were different times.

Oddly, Bill Gates lent a helping hand in making people feel good about the Mac.

Yes, that's Bill Gates on the left. In a Mac ad.

But let's pause for a failure, just for the fun of it. Apple tried to launch Macintosh Office. It ran an apparently rebellious ad. The product didn't do so well.

For me, there are only four absolute highlights of Mac advertising of the past 30 years.

"1984" is one; though, it served as much as a tool for ad agencies to desperately try to get their clients to do better ads, as it did for Apple's success.

The next was 1997. "Here's To The Crazy Ones" was made specifically because Apple had nothing else to say. The company had no product, but Steve Jobs was back after more than a decade on the outside.

So it had to remind everyone that it was a rebel and, well, sometimes rebels have the style, but the substance takes a little longer.

This was perhaps the greatest ad ever for a product that didn't yet exist. Apple just wanted its adherents to know that it was still a rebel and a misfit -- albeit a very cuddly one at heart, just looking for and dispensing a little love.

Many wonder just when Apple became cultish. It began a long time before 1997. But if ever there was a statement of either you're with us or against us, this was it.

Here were geniuses who had been derided at one or many points of their lives, before emerging glorious. These were the people to whom Apple compared itself. Of course, somewhere in there was the idea that Jobs was precisely one of these people.

This wasn't mere arrogance. This was a challenge internally to deliver a product that could somehow embody this promise.

The next highlight was the launch of iMac in 1998. Again, the fundamental proposition was humans versus technology.

"Chic, not geek" is a simple premise. It says: "Fear not, you can still be sexy and have a computer." Far more important than the ad, though, was the design of the product. Somehow, it always seemed like the turquoise one was on the desks of more enlightened offices. It was impossible to not look at it and think: "What the hell is that?"

That's the reaction artists, fashion designers, and teenagers all crave.

No ad could ever improve on that feeling. The ads that ran tried to reflect it as best they could. Yes, one even featured Jeff Goldblum assaulting the concept of beige.

And there was another that showed you the three (two) steps to get on the Internet.

Even then, the rebel couldn't be all rebel. It didn't want to fight power; it wanted to offer it. Yes, underneath all this style, there was substance -- at least some.

This was thinking different, but different with a purpose inside. Apple wanted you to be part of the new wave, but it still wanted you to know that these things, you know, worked.

These days, there's a clamoring for Apple (and, frankly, every other gadget maker) to produce something new every year. It's patently insane.

But when it comes to the advertising, my memory's sense of the Mac's ad highlights says that they didn't roll out one after another, in some constant stream of inspiration.

I'm sure there was a lot between the launch of iMac and the vast impact of "Get A Mac" in 2006. I wonder how much of it will be remembered.

The "Get A Mac" campaign had wily claws. It showed that the rebel who had always enjoyed a touch of wit was now going to turn it on its biggest and best enemy, Microsoft.

As we currently watch Microsoft trying to get its back by claiming that the iPad is little more than a plaything for the half-witted, it's instructive to see the difference when an advertising idea falls into Apple's hands.

In Justin Long's persona, Apple found an actor who could be funny, yet stay mostly just this side of mean. They also found an actor in John Hodgman who presented a slightly portlier version of every crusty nerd -- and, most of all, Bill Gates.

When Ad Age's Bob Garfield looked Gates in the eye and said: "But he's you," there arrived one of the more uncomfortable moments in world history. Gates tried to pretend that statement had never been uttered, that thought had never been formed.

To the outside world, these ads showed Microsoft -- and anyone who owned a PC -- to be as cool as the word "slacks."

They also showed Apple as a company that had refined its rebellious streak into one that wasn't merely raging against the machine, but using some of the machine's most hallowed tactics -- the side-by-side competitive ad -- against it.

The cult had a spokesman who represented relaxation against uptightness,

The first "Get A Mac" ad was almost friendly. Long admitted that Hodgates was better at spreadsheets, and merely insisted that he was Long on "lifestyle" things.

Long's wardrobe was a relaxed ensemble that wouldn't be out of place on the body of Mark Zuckerberg. Hodgates wore brown. Yes, that kind of brown. Old person's brown. With an old person's jacket.

By my count, 19 "Get A Mac" ads ran in 2006 alone. In the last of these, a Christmas special, Hodgates can't help but get at Mac. Long comes over all Californian and gives him a big hug. Why? Because by this stage Apple knew its campaign was working.

By the beginning of 2007, though, Microsoft was shown to be so desperate as to want to actually sabotage Apple. That would have surely never happened in real business.

By the last, number 66 in 2009, Apple was ranked No. 1 in customer satisfaction and offered an almost blase goodbye to the campaign -- and, some might argue, to Microsoft.

Microsoft was having its successes still, of course, but it has so failed to counter Apple at the image level that perhaps Cupertino thought it was beating up on Redmond too much. Long barely speaks in the ad.

Of all Apple's Mac campaigns, this was the one that, most of all, didn't rely on merely dramatizing the product, but on seeding the idea that the PC as a whole was a retrograde choice of the questionably tasteful.

Throughout its whole existence, Apple has always insisted on embodying a certain taste.

The onus is always on the design of the products to defy expectations and inspire instinctive human reactions.

The products will always be the best ads Apple has. They will always be seen more often than any ad the company runs. When there are products to behold, Apple's ads strive to show them in the most tasteful yet human light. (Oh, it doesn't always work, but they try.)

What was once an aggressive rebel showed over time that it had the stomach and the wiles for a fight.

Competitors helped along the way. What would Microsoft be today if it hadn't stopped running the "Where Do You Want To Go Today?" campaign? The company tossed away human values on the pyre of, well, less than met the eye.

Today, some might feel the Mac is in its dotage. Everything is more mobile, more instant. The iPhone and iPad are Macs that have lost a lot of weight.

Apple isn't a rebel any more. It's a giant company that has still managed to be seen as a cause. You're either with it, or you're one of those people.

The ads have helped in some part. But the design of the products and the attitudes of management have done far more to keep the image alive, as the company races into far more and greater markets.

The most famous Mac ads ran in periods when there were fewer distractions, when the idea of a second screen was a trip to the movies.

Ads will never alone manage to carry the company through. Others, especially Samsung and Google, are far wiser in how their ads are made.

Apple, the company that still doesn't have a Twitter account in a supposedly social, sharing world -- now there's an aging (hippie) rebel for you -- will have to rely more than ever on its product design to keep its image alive.