Iconic Super Bowl ad 35 years ago sparked Apple's rise to a $1T company

By Daniel Uria
An Apple computer and floppy disk is on display at the "Thinking Machines: Art and Design in the Computer Age, 1959-1989" exhibition on November 10, 2017 in New York City. Photo by John Angelillo/UPI
An Apple computer and floppy disk is on display at the "Thinking Machines: Art and Design in the Computer Age, 1959-1989" exhibition on November 10, 2017 in New York City. Photo by John Angelillo/UPI | License Photo

Jan. 22 (UPI) -- Before it evolved into one of the most recognizable and valuable brands in the world, Apple needed to first burst onto the scene -- and many say it turned that corner exactly 35 years ago Tuesday.

It was Jan. 22, 1984 -- the day Apple aired one of the most iconic television ads in American history. And in unprecedented fashion, it ran only once during Super Bowl XVIII; that's it.


The advertisement introduced Apple's Macintosh computer in the game's third quarter between the Washington Redskins and Los Angeles Raiders. The commercial, which aired long before million-dollar ad spots, undoubtedly got its money's worth. It would go on to set the trajectory for an Apple still in its infancy and make a lasting impression on Madison Avenue.

The "1984" ad drew inspiration from the George Orwell novel of the same name, presenting a dystopian future plagued by a lack of originality. A room full of people with shaved heads watch as a Big Brother figure preaches the benefits of "unification of thought" until a blonde woman dressed in orange shorts and a white tank top runs in and heaves a sledgehammer at the screen, which explodes to reveal a message: "On January 24th Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you'll see why 1984 won't be like '1984.'"


It goes on to close with the classic rainbow Apple logo with no image of the personal computer or any mention of its features, much like the company's ads of today.

The ad that almost wasn't

In his 2013 book The Insanity of Advertising: Memoirs of a Madman, former Apple ad account manager Fred Goldberg said "1984" began as a rejected ad for the Apple III before it was selected as one of more than 40 possible spots to introduce the next computer, the Macintosh.

Apple purchased a 60-second block of airtime and two 30-second spots to run during the Super Bowl, and produced 30-second and 60-second versions of the "1984" ad and another titled "Alone Again" for the Lisa business computer. The ad was directed by now-legendary filmmaker Ridley Scott, then fresh off Blade Runner. Apple hired 300 extras, including some actual London skinheads and actress Anya Major to appear in the ad.

In all, Apple spent $650,000 for "1984" and "Alone Again" by the time they were shown to the company's board of directors for approval. A 30-second spot for Super Bowl XVIII cost $383,000. The same time slot for Super Bowl LII next month will cost advertisers more than $5 million.


While Goldberg said Apple co-founder and CEO Steve Jobs supported the "1984" ad, Apple's board of directors were unimpressed and urged ad agency Chiat/Day to sell off the Super Bowl ad time it had bought.

The ad wasn't a hit with preview audiences, either. Goldberg said the ad was tested by a leading market research firm and it received a score of 5 on ASI Market Research's 43-point scale of effectiveness -- a fraction of the average score of 29.

Ultimately, though, Goldberg chose not to share the test results and Chiat/Day was only able to sell half of Apple's advertising time. Instead of running 60 seconds of no content, Apple chose to air "1984."

An ad revolution

The game between the Raiders and Redskins was lopsided, but Apple's ad made a splash -- and led to strong sales and influenced future Super Bowl ads. Although the ambitious commercial ran only once, it created enough buzz that it was shown repeatedly on television news broadcasts in the following days.

Russell Winer, professor of Marketing at the Stern School of Business at New York University, said part of the ad's success came from how it broke the mold, centering around product demonstrations and its cinematic depiction of a dystopian future.


"The two things that really made it unique were the lack of any product demonstration, discussion of product features and what it could do, just the MacIntosh is coming and '1984 won't be like 1984' and the execution itself which was pretty revolutionary," Winer told UPI. "That was all brand new for the Super Bowl, which historically had never seen advertising with a combination of those two kinds of features."

Winer said "1984" helped usher in the modern culture of Super Bowl advertising, where the ads can be almost as popular as the game.

"There's always a lot of publicity before the Super Bowl, what ads are coming and trying to create excitement and buzz about the ads and that really started with the 1984 ad," he said. "It may have been one of the first ads that actually got a lot of buzz without the existence of social media. It was pretty revolutionary no doubt."

By branding itself as a creative and bold alternative to chief competitor IBM, Winer said Apple became one of the earliest company's to adopt a now popular strategy of selling a "brand story" through advertising.


"It tried to demonstrate Apple's innovativeness, edginess and obviously revolutionary ideas," he said. "That's an angle that's often missed, this idea of brand stories which is very popular today in advertising to try to create a heritage for a brand and try to differentiate it from competitors in very competitive categories."

Evolving the brand

Much has changed since the "1984" ad aired 35 years ago, as Apple has become one of the most recognizable and profitable brands on the planet. But in some ways, the iconic advertisement has remained a part of Apple's identity.

Later Apple ads never again touched on the downtrodden, bleak future seen in the "1984" commercial. The company did, however, continue paving the way with highly unique advertising that focused on brand identity and its ever-growing status as a pop culture fixture.

"Apple has used the approach several times after that. They ran the 'Think Different' campaign back in the 90s where they just showed pictures of famous celebrities, no product shots," said Winer. "Then there was the Mac vs. PC campaign in the mid 2000s, again poking fun at the IBM PC, but more from the kind of person that would buy a PC as in a cool person would buy a Mac a nerd would buy a PC but again no product shots."


In most of its successes, Apple has managed to recapture the innovative spirit of the Macintosh computer that allowed it to break into the global consciousness.

"Apple has just always stood for innovation," Winer said. "That was Apple's brand story and has been Apple's brand story for a long time; innovating from the PCs, to the iPod, to the iPhone, the iPad, the watch and who knows what's going to come later."

In 2018, Apple reached a pinnacle by becoming the first publicly-traded company to reach a trillion-dollar market capitalization. But its new success has also come with new challenges as the 35th anniversary of the "1984" ad arrives.

At the beginning of 2019, Apple lowered its revenue guidance for its first fiscal quarter, citing a range of issues -- including a weakening economy in China and lower than anticipated iPhone sales, both of which had been pivotal to its success in recent years.

The marketing landscape has also changed and the company's own advertising has become more conservative in recent years.

Ironically, Apple is now the undisputed leader, much as IBM was depicted in "1984." Many critics say, in fact, Apple has become the "Big Brother" the ad warned of -- as it faces challenges from Chinese brands and top competitor Samsung, continues to command high prices for its products and shows a stinginess on proprietary matters. But as Apple proved, its greatest threat may be only a Super Bowl commercial away.


"Now that Apple is sort of the leader, can somebody come and out Apple Apple?" Winer asked. "I think it would be tough, but I would never say it couldn't be done.

"I think the challenge is what's next. If they can't keep that edge, then the competition will just become that much stronger because Apple's differentiation will diminish."

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