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  • Writer's pictureGladwyn Lewis

From the worst to the best commercial in the world

Updated: May 19, 2023

Apple 1984 - The best commercial in the world?
Apple 1984 - The best commercial in the world?

In 1983, a small ad agency Chiat/Day created a commercial that one Apple executive at the time referred to it as, "the worst commercial I've ever seen." Today, close to 40 years later, it is considered one of the best ad commercial ever created and has inspired or down right been copied by Fortnite and others. This is the story of the ad that ignited the imagination of millions worldwide and yet continues to inspire ad professionals to this day.

Its 1983, Apple was preparing to launch a product that had been in development for over 5 years.

The Macintosh Computer...

It was built to be the first mass-market personal computer systems with a graphical user interface, a built-in screen and a mouse. A far throw from the computers of that day, which were either typographical focused DOS interfaces or UNIX interfaces, where the utility of such computers were only targeted towards computer engineers or their like.

Steve Jobs believed that the Macintosh computer system would democratize the access of the public towards computer systems. It would give the average person access to technology that was previously reserved for research institutes, NASA, governments and super large corporations that could afford this expensive piece of technology.

This new product or piece of technology was revolutionary and a damn big deal, the product launch needed to be even bigger.

A pathway to the best commercial?

So, Steve Jobs called on Lee Clow and the Chiat/Day ad agency to develop a campaign for the product launch. Now remember this was before the advent of social media, Google and any sort of digital marketing. The Superbowl ad spots were coveted by the entire advertising industry, and the half-time ads were often better than the game itself. With costs averaging around $5.6 million for 30 seconds of view time, these halftime ad slots were one of the most coveted and expensive places to advertise in the world. So when Chiat/Day determined that a commercial during Super Bowl XVIII would have the widest reach, the challenge had just begun. But that was dependent on the commercial really standing out, it needed to capture that attention.

I want to do something great.

Clow very early on understood Job's vision for the launch, "I want to do something great. I want to do something that nobody else would do." So with that limited brief, the agency got to work and began brainstorming ideas, and it wasn't long before the commercial had some premise. It would be inspired by George Orwell's dystopian novel, "1984".

In it, technology is used by the government and corporations to control the masses. Steve Jobs, on the other hand was an ardent believer that the Macintosh computer could be used to empower the individual. So Clow and his team were able to convince the legendary director, Ridley Scott, to join the project.

As Scott said later about the storyboard pitch, "This was such a dramatic idea that I thought it would either be totally successful or we'd all get put in the state penitentiary."

The commercial was then shot in London with an unprecedented production budget of approximately $900k. Scott wanted to tell the story of a dystopian future where the masses are held prisoner under a despotic government, with the set being dark, grey and extremely industrial. Dozens of identical looking men with grey uniforms march towards an auditorium. With everyone being transfixed by a man on a large screen speaking about the "unification of thoughts". Suddenly our hero runs into the room. She hurls a sledgehammer and destroys the screen.

A bright flash of light... A bang... And an announcement from the narrator.

On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you'll see why 1984 won't be like 1984.

After the filming ended, Clow presented the commercial to Steve Jobs and then CEO John Sculley. They both loved it. Sculley then approved the agency to purchase 90 seconds of ad time during the Super Bowl for a total of $1.5 million. Oddly, and very unexpectedly, few people seemed to agree with Jobs and Sculley. And the commercial performed horribly in focus groups.

Apple's entire board of directors hated the commercial - The company was launching a product to compete with IBM and the ad didn't even show what the hell the new product was! The board even went so far to demand that the agency sell back the ad spots to someone else and recoup their losses. But Jobs and Chiat/Day still firmly believed in the commercial. So, the agency sold 30 seconds to another advertiser. But, with a wink and a nudge, Clow "conveniently" couldn't find another buyer for the other spot.

Masterpiece for a revolution

And, on January 22, 1984 the commercial ran during the Super Bowl XVIII. Their firm belief in the creative output that even the board of directors couldn't see, paid off and within days local cinemas and TV stations continued to bombard the air waves with the unique ad. Within a record 100 days, Apple sold 72,000 computers, thus generating $150 million in net sales. Advertising legend Regis McKenna would later refer to the ad as "more successful than the Mac itself."

Apple's masterpiece went on to win the best Super Bowl spot in 40 years and was awarded amongst the greatest commercials ever made. Cleverly Steve Jobs used the blue tones of the ad to subconsciously connect IBM with the dystopian future of the ad.

As he said in his own words:

It is now 1984. It appears IBM wants it all.
Apple is perceived to be the only hope to offer IBM a run for its money. Dealers, initially welcoming IBM with open arms, now fear an IBM-dominated and -controlled future. They are increasingly turning back to Apple as the only force that can ensure their future freedom.
IBM wants it all and is aiming its guns on its last obstacle to industry control: Apple.
Will Big Blue dominate the entire computer industry? The entire information age? Was George Orwell right about 1984?”

The greatest impact

But the greatest impact of the "1984" commercial was that it changed Super Bowl ads forever. Apple inadvertently invented the Super Bowl commercial as we know it today - A massive, one-time production meant to capture attention and inspire awe.

Every single big budget Super Bowl commercial since then has been an attempt to replicate that magic that Clow and his team were able to create for Apple. To this very day, the "1984" commercial continues to be the bar that many other companies measure their ads against.

Ironically there have even been copycats, like Fortnite with their inspired shot which was aimed as a direct attack on Apple. Apple's App Store policy must allow in-store app payments to be handled through Apple, and revenues of 30% are directly grabbed by Apple. In fact it went so far that Apple removed Fortnite from the App Store, effectively becoming the very corporatist giant it started out disrupting.

And in the same spirit of defiance, it ends exactly like the Apple ad did, but with one key addition.

Epic Games has defied the App Store Monopoly. In retaliation, Apple is blocking Fortnite from a billion devices. Join the fight to stop 2020 from becoming “1984.”

But the symbol of empowerment remains, and Apple yet remains a tool for combating conformity and asserting originality. Which begs the question, you as brand managers or your brands conforming, or are you willing to make a stand and make some noise. If so, lets talk!

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