This year marks the 30th anniversary of Apple’s epic “1984” Super Bowl spot—the one against which all others are still judged. It didn’t have a famous athlete-spokesperson. It was based on literature. It was all-out Hollywood. With its red-shorted protagonist hurling a sledgehammer at “Big Brother,” it eventually became a sledgehammer in its own right, setting a new standard for future advertisers.
Ever since, there’s been nothing like it. Even Apple couldn’t repeat its own success, with its widely-panned “Lemmings” commercial.
Just to keep things in perspective, remember that in the early 1980s computers were big, desk-swallowing things made by IBM that some people used at work. You typed green words against a black screen and used an operating system called DOS. There was no affordable personal computer yet. So the idea that you could even have one at home, a friendly one that used icons instead of code, was truly breakthrough.
For a drab-looking spot, it has quite a colorful backstory. Steve Jobs loved the idea. He saw Big Brother as a metaphor for Big Blue, and how it was time to escape IBM’s domination of the computer industry. Also, when Apple’s Board of Directors saw the spot initially, they hated it and wanted to fire Chiat/Day. Apple’s CEO at the time, John Sculley, wanted the ad agency to cancel their Super Bowl airtime, but Jay Chiat refused. Chiat/Day planned to air it twice during the game, a sixty-second in the third quarter, plus as a thirty later on. The agency cancelled the thirty, but kept the minute time-slot. Steve Wozniak even offered to pay $400,000 for the airtime himself (he never had to).
Here’s our double take on this revolutionary ad.
SHARLA: I admire this dark, moody spot. It feels “big.” It says something revolutionary is happening.
JOE: Even today, you can see what Apple was trying to do. They were rebellious inventors who would change the world. The direction, setting, cinematography … everything about this spot captivated you and made you want to watch it.
SHARLA: The production values were incredible, and that’s certainly helped it endure. One more thing. Maybe it’s just me being overt, but I wonder what would have happened if the woman threw a real apple at the screen instead of a sledgehammer. I know the sledgehammer says “destruction.” But she could have hidden it in her palm and the storm troopers could have taken it easy. It would have been powerful and symbolic for a tiny piece of fruit to shatter IBM. I know, I know, I just took all the drama out …
JOE: I think what made the commercial great was you didn’t know that this was an Apple commercial until the end. I think an apple would have caused the entire spot to look campy and lose its edge. A sledgehammer is symbol of destruction, it tears down the old regime to bring a new one, like the collapse of the Berlin Wall did five years after this spot aired. An apple would have lessened the impact that this commercial was trying to show.
SHARLA: It would have been the literal fruit that changed the world.
What do you think about Apple’s “1984” commercial? Why do you think it still works today? What works for you and what doesn’t? If you could change anything, what would it be?