Why '1984' will always be the only '1984'

It's been the same for almost three decades now. The Super Bowl rolls into view and the world goes all atwitter with talk about which television commercials will or will not ascend as the true stars of the game. The general news media always gets into the act, too, inviting folks like the lovely Sally Hogshead or that not-quite-so-lovely Donny guy to comment on which spot will wow the 14 consumers who haven't already seen every ad on YouTube. Local stations harass local agencies for their opinions. And, more than likely, every single interview, article and blog will make some reference to the Greatest Super Bowl Spot Ever Aired in the History of What Lawyers Make Everyone Refer to as The Big Game.

That spot, of course, is 1984, the commercial that ran one time during the 1984 Super Bowl, launching both the Macintosh computer and the game itself as a platform for advertising spectacle. On the off-chance you haven't seen 1984 recently, here it is:

1984 is an incredible spot, and would be even if it hadn't run on the Super Bowl. Of course, that it only ran one time—and in its full, 60-second form—only adds to its legend. (The fact its single airing was not purposeful does nothing to detract.) But people seem to forget that what really makes 1984 such a venerated spot in the halls of ad land are the same things that could quite possibly prevent such lightning from striking twice ever again.

First, though, we actually have to set aside the creative aspects. Yes, the creativity involved in producing the spot—from Lee Clow and company at Chiat\Day to director Ridley Scott to Steve Jobs himself—is astounding, but such creative mojo can be and is replicated today. Clow still runs the creative duties for Apple, and Scott continues cranking out films. Not to mention the other, numerous agencies dotting the land capable of coming up with such an idea. But what sets 1984 apart is a different set of circumstances from the usual great client + great agency = great spot equation.

One, the spot launched one of the most game-changing consumer technology products of all time: Macintosh. Sure, the Mac and its descendents languished with a 5% (or less) share of the overall PC market for years. But their impact was felt by all. The mouse. Desktop publishing. The graphical user interface. These are just a few of the computing features that, 28 years later, we all take for granted. Even if the Mac didn't originate them, it did combine them all in one decidedly un-PC product—and it popularized them enough for Microsoft to copy develop their own versions for Windows.

Two, 1984 solidified the personality of what would eventually become the most valuable brand in the world. Sure, the spot would be fondly remembered if Apple had gone on to bite the dust (as it was seemingly always on the cusp of doing in the 1990s). Instead, Apple wandered through wilderness of CEO shuffles for a few years, brought back its charismatic and visionary co-founder, and went on to unleash a few handy items like the iPod, iPhone, and iPad. Also, the Cube. But still, Apple is now considered so cool that even the Occupy crowd gives it a pass for making so much dough. Would "Think Different" have ever been thought up if Big Brother had won the day?

Three, the product had the perfect villain. At the time of the Macintosh launch, everybody used MS-DOS-powered PCs. Sure, a few folks used Apple IIs, and fewer still (guilty) used crazy things like the Texas Instruments TI-99/4A. But, by and large, it was a PC world. If you wanted to do serious things to tackle serious problems, you put up with the seriously unfriendly user interface that was the C-prompt of DOS. It was the computer you hated to use, but assumed you hated it because it was smarter than you.

Fourth, the timing of the launch allowed for one of the best plays on a cultural touchstone in the history of marketing. In the 35 years since George Orwell's 1984 had been published, the terms "Orwellian" and "Big Brother" had entered the lexicon as shorthand for abusive, totalitarian power. With the actual year of 1984 dawning, what better way to personify the overarching power of IBM and MS-DOS than a blatant play on Orwell? How much more powerful can product positioning be?

So, we have a Super Bowl launch of a—wait for it—paradigm-shifting product, the foundation of an eventual mega-brand, a perfect foil, and the perfect timing to play off the perfect cultural touchstone. How often is that going to happen? I don't know, but I'm guessing less than every 30 years, if at all.

We live in an increasingly fractured marketing landscape. Digital and social media have altered the way brands communicate to and with their customers. Yet every year, we all gather around the television, hoping to see magic—not on the field of play, but on the field of ideas. There have been some great moments through the years, but none approach 1984. And I doubt one ever will.

At least not until one of my kids invents the next Macintosh. See you in 2032.



For more on the creation of Apple's 1984 ad, watch this clip of Lee Clow discussing the spot:

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