30 years ago today, Apple aired what is widely considered the greatest commercial in Super Bowl history. But some of the first people who saw the ad thought it would be an absolute flop.
In his new book, “The Insanity of Advertising,” former Apple ad account manager Fred Goldberg reveals that when he sent Apple’s now famous “1984” ad to be tested by the leading market research company of the day, he was told it would be one of the least effective commercials the firm had ever tested.
On ASI Market Research’s 43-point scale predicting how effective a commercial would be at persuading people to buy a product, Apple’s first ad for the Macintosh computer scored a measly 5, well below the average score of 29.
Fortunately for Apple, Goldberg chose not to share the results with any of his superiors at the ad agency Chiat/Day (now TBWA\Chiat\Day), and ASI’s prediction couldn’t have been further from the truth.
You can judge for yourself by watching the ad below. Its tagline, “Why 1984 Won’t Be Like 1984” plays on George Orwell’s dystopian novel and reassures viewers that Apple’s new technology would be used for freedom, not control.
In it, a Big Brother figure addresses a room full of drab, bald-headed people and praises the futuristic society’s achievement of the “Unification of Thoughts.” A blond-haired woman in a white T-shirt and bright, orange shorts then runs into the room, chased by policemen, and throws a sledgehammer through the screen:
Mesmerized by the ad’s state-of-the-art cinematography and alluring message about the promise of technology, consumers flooded electronics stores across the country when the Macintosh debuted the following Tuesday. Those consumers would go on to purchase $US155 million worth of Macintoshes in the three months after the Super Bowl.
“It was the first time that anybody did something so outrageous on the Super Bowl,” Goldberg said in an interview with Business Insider. “I didn’t immediately know it was going to be what it was, but it sure was a really great way to introduce the product and get attention.”
Indeed, the ad’s extraordinary production values and riveting story made it one of the most-talked about topics in America, and was rebroadcast on television news shows around the country.
Though other advertisers, like Masterlock, had already started targeted their most important marketing messages at the Super Bowl and its huge audience, “1984” is often credited with ushering in the current era of Super Bowl advertising, in which the ads are as important and popular as the game itself.
But for all the accolades “1984” has won over the past three decades — among them the Grand Prix award at the 1984 Cannes Lions Advertising Festival and the No. 1 slot in TV Guide’s list of the greatest commercials of all time — the ad almost never saw the light of day.
Though Apple co-founder Steve Jobs loved the ad from the start and drew wild applause when he showed it to employees at a national sales meeting during the fall of 1983, the company’s board of directors was less impressed with the work of ad agency Chiat/Day.
According to Steve Hayden, a Chiat/Day copywriter who helped conceive the commercial, the board sat in silence after the ad was first presented, and chairman Mike Markula asked his colleagues whether they, too, wanted to fire the agency responsible.
“There was this odd, dysfunctional quality to presenting advertising to Apple,” said Brent Thomas, the Chiat/Day art director on the project. “If the people that you had to first present to hated it, Jobs was going to like it. And conversely, if it went the other way, you knew Steve would kill it.”
By the time the ad was shown to the board, Apple had already spent $US650,000 to make “1984” and a second ad for its Lisa model business computer. That money was used to enlist the services of director Ridley Scott, who at the time was coming off the 1982 hit movie “Blade Runner.” Apple also hired 300 extras to act in the ad, many of them real-life London skinheads.
In spite of all that, Chiat/Day was ultimately told by Apple to sell the two minutes of Super Bowl advertising it had purchased with the original intention of airing the “1984” spot and two 30-second Macintosh product demonstrations.
The Chiat/Day executives in charge of selling the time to other advertisers had other ideas. Goldberg says that at agency head Jay Chiat’s urging, the executives dragged their feet and were only able to sell the two 30-second slots before running out of time. Rather than show a blank screen during $US250,000 worth of airtime, Apple ran “1984,” and the rest is history.
“I basically told the ad execs given the job of selling off the time … I said I will kill you if you manage to do this,” Thomas said. “I was on my hands and knees saying, ‘Don’t do it! Don’t do it!’ Fortunately they couldn’t do it.”
The commercial would wind up having a lasting impact, not only in the world of advertising, but in the United States’ nascent consumer technology industry, as well.
By throwing a sledgehammer through the screen broadcasting a dreary announcement from a Big Brother figure, actress Anya Major inspired a generation of young people to go into a technology field that appeared more than ever to hold the key to solving problems and making the world a better place.
“This commercial was classically disruptive,” said Timothy de Waal Malefyt, a former BBDO vice president who currently teaches at Fordham University. “This wasn’t a machine where you were going to be kowtowed in the workplace, this was a machine for the young, innovative, entrepreneurial mind. It really inspires the creative individual to break free and start something different.”
The commercial was also pivotal to Apple as it positioned itself as an innovator in the field. The Macintosh computer itself was revolutionary in that it was the first affordable, personal computer to include a graphical-user interface and allow even novice computer users to easily operate the machine with its mouse. The ad helped cement Apple’s reputation as an innovator, and presented a contrast between itself and the staid marketing of industry giant IBM.
Apple also reaped the benefits of having one of the first ads to be shown repeatedly on television news shows, exposing its product to more and more consumers with every airing.
Hayden said Apple’s internal team calculated the amount of airtime the commercial got being rebroadcast on these shows, and found that it had earned about $US150 million worth of free airtime as a result.
“I guess what’s so cool is that when all the things come together, you have a computer with totally revolutionary technology, and then you create a commercial that is totally revolutionary in the world of advertising and is seen by a huge audience,” said Ken Segall, who worked on Apple’s “Think Different” campaign as a Chiat/Day creative director and later served the company as an in-house consultant.
“It really helped launch Apple on this amazing trajectory.”