The Commercial That Would Have Broken The Internet: 7 Facts About Apple’s 1984 Ad

Apple has always been an innovative company, thinking creatively not only of product and product design, but on new ways to market its products. Few Super Bowl commercials were ever celebrated as much as Apple’s 1984 – aired nationally for the first time on Super Bowl XVIII.

Apple has not been able to recreate the magic and creativeness of that spot since, either in 1985 or in 1999, when it aired two more commercials during the big game.  To this day, 1984 is seen as an advertising masterpiece, and appears in any self-respecting “Top 10 Best” of Super Bowl commercials. It won the 1984 Grand Prix at the Cannes International Ad Festival. In 1995, the Clio Awards added it to its Hall of Fame. In 1999 TV Guide called it the Number 1 Greatest Commercial of All Time. In 2003, it entered WFA’s Hall of Fame. And in addition to all the accolades, the Macintosh commercial gained a staggering media coverage. According to Steve Hayden, the copywriter who helped conceive the ad and was quoted in Business Insider, Apple earned about $150 million worth of free airtime when the commercial was aired repeatedly on numerous news shows that very night.

Here are 7 facts about the commercial, and the fascinating process that occurred behind the scenes.

The real message

The ad opens with a dystopic shot of genderless people marching through a narrow tunnel. They all converge to a big dark hall, where they sit in frozen silence while an Orwellian Big Brother figure addresses them. On a huge screen, Big Brother is speaking of a futuristic ideology promoting the “Unification of Thoughts”. A runner wearing a white t-shirt (notice the cubist picture of Apple’s Macintosh on it) and orange shorts – in sharp contrast to the grey and black colors all around her – is chased by police, but manages to sling a sledgehammer through the screen. At the moment when Big Brother says “we will prevail!” the screen is shattered and a tagline appears, announcing the new Macintosh and promising viewers that they’ll “see why 1984 won’t be like ‘1984’”.

In a piece dedicated to the ad in 2004, Macworld quoted the ad creators as to the original concept of the ad: contrary to popular belief, Big Brother was not supposed to symbolize IBM – the leading computer technology corporation of the eighties – or not only IBM, but rather to evoke the fight for the control of computer technology “as a struggle of the few against the many, with Mac symbolizing the idea of empowerment”.

Shaving your head for $125

The ad was produced by Chiat/Day, an advertising agency in California. 13 years later, the agency (which by then had merged with TBWA) created the brilliant “Think Different” slogan for Apple.

Chiat/Day went for the best in the business, and hired dystopian master director Ridley Scott, fresh from his Blade Runner adventure of 1982.  In a piece by the Smithsonian dedicated to the ad, the 60-second spot was shot in one week at a production cost of about $500,000. The two hundred extras were paid $125 a day to shave their heads, march together and sit there for hours to listen to Big Brother.

1984 tested poorly before it aired

Fred Goldberg, who was the Apple account manager for Chiat/Day when 1984 was created, wrote in “The Insanity of Advertising: Memoirs of an Ad Man” that in a test before the air, aimed at gauging the ad’s effectiveness, 1984 scored a mere 5. The average score for a 30-second spot was 29. Goldberg never showed Steve Jobs that report.

It almost didn’t air

While Jobs and Wozniak loved the ad, Apple’s Board of Directors at Apple absolutely hated it. According to the Smithsonian piece, Apple CEO at the time John Sculley instructed Chiat/Day to sell back both the 30 and 60-second time slots they’d purchased from CBS for $1 million. Chiat/Day resold 30 seconds to another advertiser, then claimed they were not able to resell the other 60. According to Walter’s Isaacson’s celebrated biography of Steve Jobs, Chiat/Day later admitted they didn’t even try.

How many computers did Apple sell after the ad?

The direct effect of advertising is a tricky thing to gauge, but two facts, nevertheless, remain: Apple sold approximately $3.5 million worth of Macintoshes in the days after the advertisement ran. According to Business Insider, in the three months following the Super Bowl, Apple sold $155 million worth of Macintoshes.

Sledgehammer Nikita

According to Yahoo, British actress Anya Mayor, who starred as the athlete who aptly shatters Big Brother’s screen, went on to be the titular Nikita in Elton John’s 1985 hit song by the same name. In 2006, Andy Herzfeld of the Macintosh development team stated that the actress had died of breast cancer in 2000. She didn’t, actually. She now lives in England with her husband and their three kids.

The (almost) forgotten Lemmings debacle

A year later, during Super Bowl 1985, Apple went far – as far as it could get – from recreating that 1984 moment. Lemmings, which promised the launch of a product that didn’t exist (Macintosh Office), depicted blindfolded people in business suits walking to the edge of a cliff and jumping to their death. This grim business goes on until a voiceover announces the launch of Macintosh Office on January 23. Then, a light breaks through the clouds, and the first lemming on the edge stops, removes his blindfold and is persuaded to hold off on the whole suicide business.

According to Wired and several other sources, viewers found the ad offensive, dark and in extremely bad taste. When it was shown on the big screen at Stanford Stadium during the Super Bowl, it was greeted by a dead silence.

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