The most famous – and arguably the best – Super Bowl ad in history, the Apple “1984” ad, was nearly killed by the company for whom it was made.
The 60-second ad, which announced the arrival of the groundbreaking Macintosh, shows a dystopian gathering of an audience of gray-looking men with gray identical outfits and shaved heads watching a leader on a large screen speak in almost unintelligible words about the goal of conformity and “information purification collectors.”
A young woman wearing running shorts and a sleeveless t-shirt runs into the room, chased by helmeted police, and throws a hammer at the screen, exploding it into a white light. At that point a narrator comes on reading the words that also appear on the screen.
“On January 24, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh,” he said. “And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like ‘1984.’”
The spot helped to change not just how people thought about having a computer in their homes, but it also changed the way the nation’s top companies thought about advertising during the Super Bowl.
The game is now packed with commercials that advertisers spend millions producing, even before they pay millions more to air the spots, in an effort to make an impression with an audience that generally does its best to avoid commercials. But it’s helped to make the ads as interesting as the game itself for some viewers.
But Apple’s board of directors hated the 1984 ad, according to some of the ad executives who worked on the campaign. It didn’t show the computer it was ostensibly about, unlike most ads that try to show the product they’re hyping. And Apple’s board wasn’t very happy. Most ads didn’t seek to remind people of a dark world urging conformity.
They hated it so much, in fact, that they ordered the agency that made it, Chiat/Day, to sell off the time they had already purchased on that year’s Super Bowl, rather than run the ad.
“Everyone loved it until we showed it to the board,” said Lee Clow, who was one of the executives who created the iconic ad. He said that Steve Jobs, Apple’s founder, largest individual shareholder and the driving creative force behind Apple products, was fully supportive of the ad that never showed the product.
“Steve demanded, ‘I want something that will stop the world to introduce Macintosh,’” Clow said. “We came up with bravest thing we could come up with.”
So the agency and Jobs worked together to make sure it got on that year’s Super Bowl, days ahead of the product’s introduction, despite the opposition from CEO John Scully and the board.
“We kind of conspired to not sell [the already purchased air time] so we could run it one time” Clow said. “We got a pretty big impact just running it once.”
Apple did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
The reaction, both in the ad industry and among viewers was overwhelmingly positive, Clow said.
“In my opinion it’s the best ad ever made,” said Marcus Collins, professor of marketing at the University of Michigan. “It’s about the magnification of the brand’s beliefs. It has become the gold standard of what marketing communications should be about. Advertising is about getting people’s attention.”
He said the attention this ad brought to Apple is difficult to overestimate.
“It was only shown once but we’re talking about it 40 years later because of its impact and cultural resonance,” he said.
He said it also changed the way that companies thought about Super Bowl ads in the 40 years since it aired.
“What we’ve seen is companies say, ‘We can’t do our normal ad. We have to step it up in production values and story we tell,’” he said. “They still fall short of what that ad did.”
The ad was directed by Ridley Scott, who had already made the movie Alien and Blade Runner, but was still making some commercials in the UK.
Clow said Scott was one of those who said “Let’s do something that doesn’t look anything like advertising, that looks like a feature film.”
But the Apple board hated everything about the ad, he said.
“They didn’t like or understand the commercial. They thought it was a waste of money,” Clow said. “It didn’t show the product. It didn’t show what the product did. It just confused their left brain. They were thinking logically, rather than emotionally and passionately like Steve was thinking.”
The ad ran many more times, for free, on news reports for years to come. But a year later, a clash between Jobs and Scully led the board to force Jobs out of the company.
Chiat/Day, the agency that created the ad people are still talking about 40 years later, was fired by Apple soon afterward. Scully wanted to work with the more conventional agency he had worked with before at Pepsico.
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