The Apple Ad Gamble

December 1, 2006

1984:The Big Bang - Why the Ad Gamble Paid Off
George Orwell never knew in 1949, when he wrote his dystopian novel 1984 about a dehumanized regime that a dark, cinematic commercial sharing its title would hijack his vision.

Apple paid $1 million for the 60 second spot that ran just once - only seconds into the third quarter of the 1984 game where the Raiders tromped the Redskins 38-9 in Tampa. But the commercial was shown so often on news programs that it became the most publicized moment in advertising history. "1984" helped drive $4.5 million in sales within six hours of its airing and made its creator, Chiat/Day, a formidable agency. It launched the genre of advertising as a Super Bowl event and transformed the game into an advertising showcase. And it ushered in the era of advertising as news.

In a stark futuristic setting, hollow-eyed zombies shuffle in lockstep into a huge assembly hall dominated by a giant screen from which Big Brother orates. "Today we celebrate the first glorious anniversary of the Information Purification Directives. We have created, for the first time in all history...a garden of pure ideology." The devolved automatons, their heads shaved and mouths agape, stare transfixed as Big Brother spews rhetoric: "...where each worker may bloom secure from the pests of contradictory and confusing truths. Our Unification of thought is more powerful a weapon than any fleet or army on earth.''

Suddenly, an athletic blond in red shorts charges toward the screen, pursued by ominous-looking "thought police." Big Brother's harangue continues: "We are one people...with one will... one cause. .....We shall prevail!" She winds up the sledgehammer she is carrying and hurls it mightily. The screen explodes in a blinding flash of light. The drones' jaws slacken. "On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you'll see why 1984 won't be like "1984," says the announcer.

Viewers may not have understood ALL that Apple intended to convey - that it had created a user-friendly computer for the masses, that the woman represented youth rebelling against oppression and was smashing a symbol of Big Blue, that is, IBM, and that Apple was a David to this Goliath. But they got the gestalt. This eerie spot, which never showed the product or even said what it was, spoke to them.

Before 1984, Apple's future looked dicey. The seven-year old company had launched the personal computer revolution in the 1970s but IBM had lapped it, its two most recent introductions had bombed and its stock had tanked. Macintosh and this ad for it could change both Apple's fortune and the way the world worked.

"Computing had been in the hands of a close-knit elite, and we were going to bust up that cabal and give the power to the people," says copywriter Steve Hayden (who went on to run Apple at BBDO and later joined Ogilvy & Mather to run the IBM account). "Macintosh was leading a revolution, taking power from big business and big government and putting it in the hands of the people." Apple's mission was grander than to convince viewers to want something they didn't even know they needed - a 20 pound machine that cost $2,495, real money in 1984. It aimed "to stop the world in its tracks to let everybody know that something terribly important has just happened," he said.

In 1983, Apple cofounder Steve Jobs, then 29, clipped a newspaper article about how George Lucas had meticulously marketed "Star Wars," to make it seem like an instant and spontaneous hit. Jobs wanted that lightning to strike again on his turf.

For its part, Chiat/Day wanted a commercial that would play to the issues of the day: an anti-government
upswing, women's liberation, Middle America's fears of factory closings, the rise of automation, the ubiquity of Big Brother. Chiat/Day president Lee Clow doodled a storyboard; Ridley Scott who directed "Blade Runner," "Alien," and ballyhooed Chanel commercials shot the 60 second epic at London's Sheppeerton Studios.

Initially, Apple planned to run "1984" during New Year's Day college football. But the Mac wouldn't launch until after Apple's January 24 annual meeting. Jobs worried that potential Mac buyers weren't Super Ball watchers. Chiat/Day's Jay Chiat worried that Sprint celebrating the recent breakup of AT&T would seize the 1984 theme. Apple's directors worried that the spot wouldn't work, especially after receiving a dismal effectiveness score (5 VS a norm of 29 for business machines) in copy-testing. And when it was screened for the board-to total silence-one director suggested trying to find a buyer for the ad time. Chiat foisted 30 seconds off on United Air and McDonald's, then pretended it couldn't find a buyer for the second minute. So the board grudgingly assented to its airing. (Legend has it that Apple's founder Steve Wozniak offered to split the $900,000-$500,000 to air and $400,000 to produce-with Jobs).

As if turned out, they worried for naught. Almost 100 million viewers -46 percent of American households - watched. Even though Chevrolet bought the most time in the game, it was Apple's visually stunning tease that they remembered. The day after the game, 200,000 people flocked to Mac dealers and 72,000 bought one in the first 100 days. This exceeded Apple's most optimistic projections by 50 percent. Apple added a factory shift, Wall Street analysts revised their forecasts upward and TV stations re-played the spot as news. "1984" went on to sweep advertising awards shows and be named Advertising Age's 1980's Commercial of the Decade.

Apple recognized that its Super Bowl K.O. was not a campaign and it followed the Super Bowl play with magazine ads that explained how Macintosh worked and how Apple engineers devised "a personal computer so personal, it can practically shake hands."

Super Plays/Take-Away
Apple bet the ranch on the Bowl. It may have been the best $900,000 investment in advertising history. And it almost didn't happen. In fact, the only reason it did was because the Chiat team so completely believed in their product (the ad) that they resorted to tricky dealings to air it. Trusting their gut paid off because the commercial lived up to its billing-and then some. So did the Mac itself. But Apple also knew that with a product this costly and novel, serious support had to go into advertising to explain it.


"The Super Bowl of Advertising: Are The Advertisers Still Winning The Game?" Bernice Kanner. New York: ANA, 2006.