ore than 36 years ago, when Apple was still a relatively unknown computer company, it paid an estimated $250,000 to air a Super Bowl commercial known as “1984.” And that wad of money was on top of the $650,000 that Apple had already paid an advertising company to develop and Ridley Scott — who had just struck gold with his film Blade Runner — to direct.
After watching a preview of the one-minute commercial, Apple board members universally panned it, and ordered the ad agency to sell the airtime for the Super Bowl spot. But executives at Chiat/Day, the ad agency, had other ideas: It’s leaders told Apple — a bit disingenuously — that it was too late to unload the slot. Apple would just have to broadcast the commercial during the Super Bowl; otherwise, millions of Americans would just see a black screen for 60 seconds.
Apple grudgingly gave the ‘green light’ to air the commercial at the Super Bowl, which was held on January 22, 1984.
The company would never air the commercial nationally again — but that lone Super Bowl broadcast sent shockwaves through the advertising industry. Likewise, the Apple commercial also shifted how ad executives and the firms that hire them thought about the Super Bowl.
I first saw the famous “1984” commercial during the 1984 Super Bowl, and have watched it many times since, including while I was an undergraduate student of communications.
If you haven’t seen “1984” before, take a minute to watch it now, before you continue reading my analysis of the impact that it had on advertising.
What Made “1984” Different
While “1984” is a commercial, it doesn’t look like a commercial — at least it didn’t in 1984, when it was first shown to the public. Rather, it comes off as a cinematic experience. The contrast between the men in all gray staring at a man on a television screen — also in all gray — and the colorful athletic woman, who is chased by ominous-looking soldiers, is chilling.
It’s clear that the young woman is the heroine of the story who seeks to liberate the mind-controlled men from the man on the screen. Her swift hurling of a hammer that smashing the television screen/dictator makes an ominous impression.
Meanwhile, the cultural references to the George Orwell novel 1984 were obvious, inasmuch that the commercial ended with the phrase “On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like ’1984.’” Equally obvious is that the Big Brother figure on the television screen was a stand-in for IBM.
What Made “1984” Great
At the time the commercial aired, America was locked in a high-stakes Cold War with Russia. The message was clear: IBM/Big Brother was stealing freedom from the people, and Apple had arrived to liberate them.
The Apple commercial played on the peoples’ fears, and told them that buying a Macintosh computer was the solution. Contrast that with IBM’s strategy: Big Blue tried to entice people to buy its computers by using a Charlie Chaplin look-alike in its commercials. (The idea behind the IBM commercial was to show that its computers could even turn a tramp into a yuppy.)
Another interesting aspect of the 1984 commercial is that it didn’t show Apple’s product or tell its prospective buyers what they might use it for once they had one.
In doing this, Apple presented itself as a disruptor in the computer industry by latching itself onto peoples’ anxieties about the world rather than the product’s features.
By creating a cinematic experience with a beginning, middle and ending with a resolution — Apple did something that was unheard of, that certainly hadn’t been seen during previous Super Bowls. The striking visual effects of the commercial made it different than anything else Super Bowl watchers had seen up until that point that evening — or expected to see during breaks from the football game.
The ad is not just overpowering — it is empowering, it is symbol of liberation: The lone, unbroken character is the woman, who uses her hammer to smash the television screen. Through timing (1984 / the Cold War), topic (repression / liberation) and cinematic technique, the commercial positions Apple as both an innovator and disruptor who empowers the people.
In the days that followed the 1984 Super Bowl, news networks rebroadcast the Apple commercial repeatedly, sometimes in its entirety. By some estimates, Apple got $5 million worth of free advertising from media outlets who broadcast it during their news shows again, and again.
The Impact of One Commercial
While a lot has been said by media analysts about why the commercial is great, less has been said about its impact on advertisements shown during future Super Bowls..
Today, many people take for granted that even non-sports fans gather around the television on Super Bowl Sunday — because, for many people, the commercials ARE the main event. Like many other Americans, I could care less who is playing in the game — but the commercials, I care very much about them.
That wasn’t always the way people watch the Super Bowl.
In the 1980’s there was no such thing as YouTube or streaming services, so if you wanted to see the best commercials that year, you would watch the Super Bowl — or at least the commercials. The Apple “1984” commercial gave other advertisers the idea that they, too, could create a cinematic experience for millions of eyeballs during the Super Bowl.
YouTube Won’t Replace Super Bowl Commercials
In the years since 1984, the price tag for a Super Bowl commercial also spiraled out of control, yet companies continue to snap them up. In 2021, advertisers paid $550,000 to buy a 30-second spot during the Super Bowl, despite the fact they these commercials are all now available online.
So, even with the iniquitousness of the Internet, millions of people still rush to watch the Super Bowl, even if they don’t care for football, just to watch the commercials. You can credit Apple for turning the commercials played during the Super Bowl into an event.
Meanwhile, the types of commercials that are broadcast during the Super Bowl have changed as well. The “1984” Apple commercial is iconic, and the best Super Bowl commercials since then have been equally iconic.
Budweiser’s familiar Clydesdales first appeared in 1991 Super Bowl. Also in a 1991 commercial, a Pepsi aired a spot featuring icon Ray Charles and three women that look suspiciously like “The Supremes,” the musician told the world that the soda water product was irresistible in an MTV style video.
Frankly, many of the most iconic Super Bowl commercials in the years since 1984 have been monopolized Budweiser — for example the “Bud Bowl” commercials — and a few other companies
But eTrade got in the mix with its 2008 eTrade Baby spot, which told the world that eTrade was the investment company for youthful, energetic people. The company retired the spot in 2014, but the image continues to be powerful.
“1984” Remains An Icon
The Soviet Union fell apart more than two decades ago, and IBM is hardly seen as a threat to Apple. New players in the tech industry have emerged: Google and Amazon to name a couple. In a way, they all have Apple to thank for their success.
Each of them created a great, unique technology — and Amazon and Google have since created some of the most iconic commercials. Apple taught us that it’s not enough to create a product that works well and has great features. But rather, one that makes prospective buyers feel good — in the context of current events.
For Amazon’s part, its 2018 Super Bowl commercial imagined what would happen if Alexa, the company’s digital assistant, lost its voice. For many people that’s a scary thought — but Amazon communicated that message in a fun and playful manner.
Meanwhile, Google, which sells a pretty boring, but useful product, has used the search engine to build storylines about using the search engine to build relations leading to a happy marriage.
Now, I’ve seen the “1984” commercial dozens of times, and I always knew that it’s considered to be one of the best commercials ever made. In 1999, Ad Age named it one of the top 100 commercials of the century. And last year, Business Insider named it one of the 15 most iconic Super Bowl commercials.
The Earthquake Called “Marketing”
But what I didn’t know, until I examined the history of “1984” more closely, was how much one commercial could create an earthquake in the advertising industry. And for all Apple’s hand-wringing over it — the commercial almost didn’t happen. That stunned me.
When I learned the true story behind “1984” and how influential it was not only to the future of the advertising industry — but to the sports industry — I was shocked.
Most people don’t remember that the Washington Redskins faced off against the Los Angeles Raiders during the 1984 Super Bowl — but you can be sure that team members and their coaches use iPhones and iPads to stay connected, to build their strategy and to feel liberated.
When I captured that image in my mind, I remembered that it all started with a commercial called “1984” that broadcast Steve Jobs’ vision for society. That, I thought, is marketing.
When I was a kid, my mom thought that I’d have my own talk show because I was always asking people lots of questions about themselves. When I graduated college, I began living my own dream as a reporter for a news media outlet. As a journalist, I spoke daily with public affairs officers who represented diverse government and corporate clients.
I soon realized that public affairs combined the best of both worlds of journalism and television talk shows — I get to learn interesting and unusual things about people who worked with me, I then get to tell their story. With this thought in mind, I spent two years at CIA, where I was a supervisor in the Public Communications Branch at the Office of Public Affairs.
As a strategic communicator, I juggle many balls — but I’m a writer first. Writing is my first love. You can say that I’m addicted to it.
On a personal level, my parents taught me the value of travel when I was young, and since then, I’ve been an avid traveler — I have visited 20 countries. Though I’ve learned important lessons from each of my trips, my trip to Chile — the string bean-shaped country — was my favorite.
To learn more about me and my digital travels, visit my Twitter page.