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.

Later,

Fox

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

Comments closed
    • cphite
    • 8 years ago

    To me, the most interesting thing about the advertisement is how blatantly opposite to it Apple actually acts in the marketplace today. They control everything about their products; the hardware, the OS, what applications it can run and how those applications are developed.

    Now, one can certainly argue that all of that is actually a benefit – and there is some merit to that argument. But the fact remains, Apple has become exactly what their advertisement was railing against.

    • jweller
    • 8 years ago

    Ironically Apple has turned out to have a very big brother’ish and dictatorial attitude towards its customers just as much so as IBM or Microsoft. Apple products are the poster children for the term walled off garden. Also Apple users are evangelical drones giving homage to their Steve Jobs master not unlike the ones they spoof in this iconic commercial.

    • Yeats
    • 8 years ago

    Scientists are claiming that sugar is toxic, so maybe lay off the Apple Kool-Aid, for your own health.

    • clone
    • 8 years ago

    “1984” was incredible in it’s time but I couldn’t give a whit about it today, more to it I’ve still never owned an Apple product of any kind.

    I don’t hate Apple I just don’t care to pay more for less.

    personally I’ll remember the Eminem Chrysler car commercial far longer than Apples “1984” because the only time I remember Apples commercial is when someone posts a blog talking about how I’m supposed to remember Apples “1984” commercial.

    it’s funny I just watched a documentary on advertising and they were showing the really huge hit commercials of the past, I remember the speed talking UPS guy…. loved that commercial, I remember the commercial for Republican presidential candidate and I remember the “where’s the beef” advertising campaign.

    throughout they talked about “1984” and at the end they showed it, my response was “impressive” but I didn’t care and it didn’t inspire…… great commercial, don’t care because it’s 2012 Apple has proven they don’t practice what the commercial preaches…. they as a company are the complete opposite and lastly I’m bored with celebrating things that happened 28 years ago.

      • FranzVonPapen
      • 8 years ago

      Even with the punctuation and paragraphs, your post reads like a run-on sentence. I’m not sure how you accomplished this feat, but my hat is off to you, sir. Bravo, bravo!

        • clone
        • 8 years ago

        thanks and god bless the run on sentence. (poor grammar overall)

        nothing on the web gets the irrelevant to reveal how small they are like weak grammar.

    • Captain Ned
    • 8 years ago

    Y’all can argue about all of the details. Taken solely as an advertisement and gauging its effect as an ad, nothing comes close to the 1984 ad. It ran only once and yet everyone knows it. Debate the underlying hardware/software attributions as you all will, but as an example of the art of advertising I doubt anything will top 1984.

    For the record, I’ve never bought nor am likely to ever buy an Apple product. Still doesn’t diminish the impact of 1984 (having watched it live).

    • Welch
    • 8 years ago

    Hmmmm the video isn’t working. Maybe Apple broke into the server rooms in California and seized the server that hosted the youtube video of their beloved 1984 advertisement!

    OK, the video is from 1984 and it should stay there, who gives a damn. If anything its a great way to look back and laugh about the fact that Apple has become everything it claimed it stood against, that is… Control. Control is EVERYTHING to Apple now. I don’t think any company in history can begin to claim having done a 180* as bad as Apple from its original image. The only other company that could smash Apple’s perfect 180* record would be if Microsoft gave away their operating systems for free and made it open source! I mean they have already done a 360, all they need is another 180* and they will have done a 540! (That was a horrible attempt at a XboX/Snowboarding joke)

    • TheEmrys
    • 8 years ago

    Thank you, Xerox PARC, for making all of Macintosh possible.

      • windwalker
      • 8 years ago

      Thank you, Microsoft Courier, for making the iPad possible.

        • lilbuddhaman
        • 8 years ago

        I’ll just skip a few here:

        Thank you caveman, for making fire possible.

          • EsotericLord
          • 8 years ago

          Thank you, laws of thermodynamics for making fire possible?

            • Kurkotain
            • 8 years ago

            Thank you, Big Bang for making existence possible.

            Wait, what? too much?

      • derFunkenstein
      • 8 years ago

      Good artists copy. Great artists steal.

    • indeego
    • 8 years ago

    [i<]"Why '1984' will always be the only '1984'"[/i<] Author then mostly ignores Orwell's original influence three decades earlier.

    • activhal
    • 8 years ago

    Interesting, in one line you confirm that you are aware that MAC did not invent the tech that it used to make its product and in another you accuse MS of copying it. I also find it interesting that you claim regarding the PC “It was the computer you hated to use, but assumed you hated it because it was smarter than you.” I don’t know of anyone who thought of the PC as being smarter than them, though I can clearly see that the designers of MAC products think that their products are smart then the people who use them, and dare I say many of the operators of those products would agree.

      • lilbuddhaman
      • 8 years ago

      But siri is like so awesome…KNOWS EVERYTHING! I said “I wanna buy a hooker” and it found me escort services! MAGIC.

    • NeelyCam
    • 8 years ago

    1984 was the last of great Van Halen albums.

      • 5150
      • 8 years ago

      The new one is damn good too, just released today!

        • Peldor
        • 8 years ago

        Wow, I thought that had to be some sort of rickroll minus the Youtube link.

        And yet, it’s not only true, but there’s now three Van Halens in Van Halen making this the Van Halenest.

        Stranger than fiction.

          • NeelyCam
          • 8 years ago

          3x Van Halen [i<]and[/i<] David Lee Roth!! I gotta get that one; buying it from Amazon together with the next Meshuggah album for free shipping.

        • derFunkenstein
        • 8 years ago

        I’m glad to hear that. I was afraid it was a cash-in-Dave-needs-money kind of a record. I really do prefer Sammy, but 1984 and Women and Children First are both great records too.

    • Bensam123
    • 8 years ago

    I can tell you like Macs. What is a confirmation bias for $500 Alex.

      • derFunkenstein
      • 8 years ago

      It’s a blog.

    • Sargent Duck
    • 8 years ago

    The thing I like most about the 1984 commercial is how Apple itself has turned into “Big Brother”. In hindsight, the commercial was really just a forshadow of things to come.

      • ltcommander.data
      • 8 years ago

      The internet and other technological progress has certainly done a lot of good since 1984, but it really seems to enabled a whole raft of Big Brothers whether older foes like Microsoft or Apple, or newer foes like Google and Facebook.

      • srg86
      • 8 years ago

      Personally, I can’t wait for someone to successfully pull this one on Apple, the commercial was more about them than IBM.

      [quote<]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.[/quote<] Oh come on, they didn't even combine them, the Mac was a blatant copy of what Xerox were doing, I call this a troll article.

        • Sargent Duck
        • 8 years ago

        “Picasso had a saying: ‘Good artists copy, great artists steal.’ We have always been shameless about stealing great ideas…” — Jobs, 1994

          • ltcommander.data
          • 8 years ago

          Was there stealing involved? I believe Apple paid Xerox to take a look at their research lab and then paid to license some of the technology.

            • Squeazle
            • 8 years ago

            It’s certainly not stealing from the capitalist perspective. In the same sense that CAT isn’t stealing when it buys out another company simply to know how to make their machines, get their prints and close the gates afterwards. It’s a fair economic trade, but the intellectual brilliance that founded some really cool ideas tend to get buried in the process.

          • lilbuddhaman
          • 8 years ago

          And that became “excited about suing”

        • bthylafh
        • 8 years ago

        The Alto was never going to be consumer hardware; it was too expensive for one thing, and for another Xerox was notorious for ignoring and not commercializing inventions that came out of PARC.

        Apple deserves credit for being the first to get WIMP interfaces mainstream.

        • TakinYourPoints
        • 8 years ago

        The differences between the Xerox Alto, Xerox Star (which was released in 1981 for $75k for a basic networked system and $16k per workstation), and the Macintosh were massive.

        Look at how different interacting with the Star was compared to the Mac (and then later Windows 3.0): [url<]http://youtu.be/Cn4vC80Pv6Q[/url<] There was a four year gap between Apple visiting PARC and the release of the Mac. The Mac team also had several engineers who had worked at Xerox with Smalltalk. That time was used to improve the UI. Some of the under-the-hood advantages of Star wouldn't hit the mass market for over a decade, otherwise you'd be looking at something like $16k per Star in a product that was designed to be networked with other Stars. Ouch. Anyway, actually look at Smalltalk and the MacOS, huge improvements. One of the Xerox/Mac developers goes over the differences here: [url<]http://www.folklore.org/StoryView.py?project=Macintosh&story=On_Xerox,_Apple_and_Progress.txt&topic=Software%20Design&sortOrder=Sort%20by%20Date[/url<] [quote<]Smalltalk has no Finder, and no need for one, really. Drag-and-drop file manipulation came from the Mac group, along with many other unique concepts: resources and dual-fork files for storing layout and international information apart from code; definition procedures; drag-and-drop system extension and configuration; types and creators for files; direct manipulation editing of document, disk, and application names; redundant typed data for the clipboard; multiple views of the file system; desk accessories; and control panels, among others. The Lisa group invented some fundamental concepts as well: pull down menus, the imaging and windowing models based on QuickDraw, the clipboard, and cleanly internationalizable software. Smalltalk had a three-button mouse and pop-up menus, in contrast to the Mac's menu bar and one-button mouse. Smalltalk didn't even have self-repairing windows - you had to click in them to get them to repaint, and programs couldn't draw into partially obscured windows. Bill Atkinson did not know this, so he invented regions as the basis of QuickDraw and the Window Manager so that he could quickly draw in covered windows and repaint portions of windows brought to the front. One Macintosh feature identical to a Smalltalk feature is selection-based modeless text editing with cut and paste, which was created by Larry Tesler for his Gypsy editor at PARC. As you may be gathering, the difference between the Xerox system architectures and Macintosh architecture is huge; much bigger than the difference between the Mac and Windows. It's not surprising, since Microsoft saw quite a bit of the Macintosh design (API's,sample code, etc.) during the Mac's development from 1981 to 1984; the intention was to help them write applications for the Mac, and it also gave their system designers a template from which to design Windows. In contrast, the Mac and Lisa designers had to invent their own architectures. Of course, there were some ex- Xerox people in the Lisa and Mac groups, but the design point for these machines was so different that we didn't leverage our knowledge of the Xerox systems as much as some people think.[/quote<] So basically, nearly all of the UI paradigms that we take for granted now (drag & drop, folder behavior, pull down menus, contextual menus, etc etc) came from the Macintosh, not the Alto or the Star. What Xerox did was important, absolutely, but it was merely a jumping off point. Everything is iterative, one thing builds upon the last thing. It is obvious that MacOS built upon what was seen at Xerox. However, the differences in UI between the two are so significant that to call it a copy is silly. Desktop GUIs of today have much more in common with the 1984 Macintosh than they do the 1981 Star or 1973 Alto. The Star video from above is VERY interesting, anyone interested in computer history should check it out.

          • TakinYourPoints
          • 8 years ago

          And for comparison, a pre-release version of MacOS from 1983: [url<]http://youtu.be/hMENx28FueA[/url<] (mute it, haha) Compare that with the Xerox Star video I posted above. Even a year before the Mac's release, it is so obvious how the Mac streamlined and improved what Xerox had done with the UI. It is impressive how so much of what I'm doing in Windows and OS X right now still derives from what the Mac team did almost 30 years ago.

      • willyolio
      • 8 years ago

      same old, same old. when the communist revolutionaries removed the Czars, they became the new supreme dictators…

        • cynan
        • 8 years ago

        Power corrupts; Apple-solute power corrupts Apple-solutely

      • dashbarron
      • 8 years ago

      ^This holy crap this.

      I have always thought that 1984 and Apple’s whole attitude towards Big Brother and control has been the biggest joke ever…and the “people” never get the punchline.

      • tcunning1
      • 8 years ago

      I’d never noticed how much the “audience” looks like they’re at Steve Jobs Apple unveiling, blindly accepting everything that appears in front of them.

      Seriously, I like Apple, but the irony is inescapable.

      • jstern
      • 8 years ago

      When reading about this commercial in the Steve Jobs biography, the ironic part was that it felt like Steve Jobs was big brother, while Wozniak wasn’t. Pure marketing, let by someone who was the opposite. Kind of like a lying politician. Yet thanks to what some agency or whoever thought, came up with the idea, it painted that picture of Apple. Marketing really works.

    • Dposcorp
    • 8 years ago

    Nice write up Fox; thanks.

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