Ten Years After Apple's '1984': The Commercial and Product That Changed Advertising
"1984" unleashed a revolution.
The product being introduced by the TV commercial of that name was the Macintosh, but the cause was bringing power—computer power—to the people.
"Macintosh was always bigger than the product," says Steve Hayden, copywriter on the spot while at Chiat/Day and now chairman of BBDO Worldwide's Los Angeles office, home of the Apple account since 1986.
"We thought of it as an ideology, a value set. It was a way of letting the whole world access the power of computing and letting them talk to one another. The democratization of technology—the computer for the rest of us."
Ten years ago, in the third quarter of the National Football League's Super Bowl game on Jan. 22, Apple introduced the Mac with a 60-second Orwellian epic in which a youthful woman hurled a big mallet at a big screen to kill Big Brother, from George Orwell's classic novel "1984."
Even though Apple today is battling to overcome market share losses as it attempts to redefine its mission, there's no arguing the enduring impact of "1984." The commercial changed advertising; the product changed the ad business; the technology changed the world.
"1984" was a creative and media-buying achievement, a teaser spot with the pretension of a serious film that cost $400,000 to produce and $500,000 to broadcast in its single national paid airing.
It turned the Super Bowl from a football game into advertising's Super Event of the year. And it ushered in the era of advertising as news: The three major TV networks replayed parts or all of the spot as a story on nightly news programs.
Apple's "1984" did a lot more than sweep advertising awards shows and become Advertising Age's 1980s' Commercial of the Decade, from the publication's Agency of the Decade.
"What `1984' as a commercial for Apple really signified was the first time somebody could put a great deal of production money into a single commercial and run it only once and get tremendous benefit from running it only once," says John O'Toole, president of the American Association of Advertising Agencies. "It took great coordination with PR. It was really event marketing, with sales promotion and PR built in. That was the beginning of the new era of integrated marketing communications."
The great commercial stemmed from a greater product and remarkably arrogant vision of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, who was 29 when Macintosh was born.
"Steve said, `I want the world to stop in its tracks. I don't care what you have to do. I want everybody in the world to know that something incredibly important has just happened,'" recalls Mr. Hayden. "He seduced people. You had the feeling you were really participating in something big here. That's where `1984' came from."
This sounds like the Second Coming. For those involved in the commercial, it was. "1984" and the Mac succeeded precisely because the charismatic and mercurial Mr. Jobs convinced followers at the company and agency to join the Macintosh cult and believe in the power of "1984."
"`1984' is the singular thing that sounded the trumpets for all evangelists to come out of the woodwork," says author and computer columnist Guy Kawasaki, then an Apple "software evangelist" paid to promote Macintosh to software developers. "The rabid Macintosh owner-to-be said, `Yes, this is a cause.' That was `Tora! Tora! Tora!' for us."
In a world of empty and cynical claims for "revolutionary" toilet-bowl cleaners and diet aids, Apple and its agency believed in a higher power. "1984" was "truth in advertising," says Joanna Hoffman, one of 18 original members of the Macintosh engineering and marketing team and now VP-marketing at General Magic, a software company.
Macintosh, Mr. Hayden says, was "leading a revolution...taking the power away from big business and big government and putting it in the hands of people.
"You've got to understand that was the rallying cry in the hallways of Apple. Computing had been held by a close-knit elite, and we were going to bust up the cabal and give the power to the people."
That '60s mantra seems out of sync with the materialistic '80s. Yet Mr. Hayden contends "1984" succeeded largely because the commercial played into issues of the day: the fervor of the anti-big government Reagan revolution, fears over factory closings and the rise of automation, debate over the ubiquity of Big Brother in the 1949 novel by Mr. Orwell.
"This spot resonated because it was dealing with fundamental issues at the change of an age," Mr. Hayden says. "`1984'—or any great commercial, any great thing—operates on a super-rational level, and so it carries with it a lot of freight that has nothing whatsoever to do with what's being said, and nothing whatsoever to do with the product in question."
The commercial, directed by British filmmaker Ridley Scott, opens on a room of zombie-like citizens staring at a huge screen where Big Brother is spewing a relentless cant about "information purification...unprincipled dissemination of facts" and "unification of thought."
Against this ominous backdrop, a woman in athletic wear runs in and hurls a sledgehammer into the screen, causing a cataclysmic explosion that shatters Big Brother.
Then the message flashes on the TV screen: "On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you'll see why 1984 won't be like `1984.'"
The symbolism was clear: The woman and youth, the hammer and workers of the world, Big Brother and, yes, Big Blue.
And Apple needed a big bang to get back in the game. IBM Corp. had swept past Apple to take the lead in the personal-computer market in 1983. Apple's two most recent product introductions had bombed, and the company's stock was in the tank.
"Apple's future is being questioned as never before," asserted the opening line in Apple's annual report two months before the Macintosh introduction.
So Apple, breaking a few advertising rules along the way, audaciously introduced the intuitive, friendly Mac with an eerie spot that didn't show the product or say what it was. In a strategy befitting Big Brother, Apple also used the most-watched TV program of the year—with 46% of U.S. households tuned in—to get across a populist message.
"It was a startling commercial," says advertising consultant Arthur Einstein, who then presided over IBM advertising as president-creative director of now-defunct Lord, Geller, Federico, Einstein in New York. "In addition to being wonderfully done, it was talked about for a full year. They had a strategy that clearly went beyond making a television commercial.... I thought `wow' then, and 10 years later it's still a dynamite commercial."
"1984" initially was pegged to air on New Year's Day college football games but was pushed back to the Super Bowl to be closer to Macintosh's official introduction at Apple's Jan. 24 annual shareholders' meeting.
Mr. Jobs, not the sort to sit through TV football games, had to be convinced that computer buyers actually watched the Super Bowl, Mr. Hayden recalls. Once he was convinced, Apple bought two minutes of time.
Mr. Hayden says Apple wouldn't have aired "1984" if another advertiser ran an Orwellian-themed spot before the commercial's debut. Chiat was so worried a phone company, perhaps Sprint, would use the theme to ring in the Jan. 1 breakup of AT&T Co. that the agency won permission from Apple to run "1984" in an obscure market in late '83 just so the commercial could be entered in awards competitions, Mr. Hayden says. The precaution proved unnecessary.
But "1984" did come to an abrupt, albeit temporary, halt after a screening for Apple's directors.
"At the end of the 60-second commercial, the room was silent," says Michael Murray, then Macintosh director of marketing and now a VP at Microsoft Corp. "Phil Schlein [a former director] had his head on the table, and he was pounding a fist on the table in slow motion. The first comment came from Mike Markkula," then an outside director and now Apple chairman. "He says, `Steve [Mr. Jobs], I can't believe you want to show this ad.' All of the sudden, the meeting takes on a very funereal tone, as in my own funeral. We were instructed by the board to sell the time that Chiat/Day had purchased."
Chiat sold off the first minute. Greg Helm, formerly a Chiat management supervisor and now ceo of Stein Robaire Helm, Los Angeles, pauses and chuckles when asked how hard Chiat pushed to sell the second minute: "We tried very hard to sell one of them."
Adds Mr. Murray: "To this day, I've never investigated how hard that effort really was, and I don't want to know."
Someone at Apple—it's not clear who—gave the go-ahead to fill the other Super Bowl minute with "1984," and the story of Macintosh reached the millions of Americans who had the good graces not to be in the bathroom or kitchen during that particular commercial break.
Apple already had gone beyond computer and business publications to drum up stories about Macintosh in general-interest titles, such as Rolling Stone. But when the TV spot became TV news, Apple and its PR agency, Regis McKenna, Palo Alto, Calif., were "completely caught off guard," says Jane Anderson, then a key player at McKenna and now director of customer marketing at General Magic.
News coverage about "1984" also would change the advertising game. Advertising today is big news in newspapers and on TV shows like "Entertainment Tonight," and clever advertisers such as Nike and Coca-Cola Co.-and occasionally Apple-court media attention for new campaigns.
Mr. O'Toole recalls that before "1984," he tuned into the Super Bowl for football. "From '84 on, I watched the Super Bowl to see the commercials," he says.
The game has become a showcase for new campaigns (Anheuser-Busch's Bud Bowl debut in 1989, Reebok International's Dan & Dave athletic rivalry in 1992) and, occasionally, product introductions, including successes (Gillette Co.'s Sensor razor in 1990) and duds (Pepsi-Cola Co.'s Crystal Pepsi in 1993).
The commercial appeal of the Super Bowl can be seen in the price of admission for advertising. Thirty seconds on this year's Jan. 13
30 telecast will go for $900,000, more than three times the $250,000 rate a decade ago. The price of a Macintosh, meanwhile, has fallen from $2,495 to less than $1,000 for a vastly improved model.
"You cannot justify on cost-effectiveness what people now spend for these Super Bowl spots if you're trying to reach the consumer," contends Martin Mayer, author of "Madison Avenue U.S.A." and "Whatever Happened to Madison Avenue?"
Apple long ago stopped buying time on the Super Bowl. The computer company hasn't been back since its 1985 airing of "Lemmings," an ill-conceived and controversial spot that showed a line of executives plunging off a cliff one by one because they didn't question the way business had always been done.
The macabre spot prematurely introduced "Macintosh Office," a series of office automation products that Apple hadn't finished developing, and it ushered in a disastrous year when Apple closed three of six factories, terminated 20% of employees and parted ways with Mr. Jobs. Those moves presaged the firing of Chiat/Day and hiring of BBDO in 1986.
In his 1987 autobiography, "Odyssey," John Sculley, who joined Apple as president-ceo in 1983 and exited last fall as its chairman, says he and Mr. Jobs suggested an Orwellian theme for the Macintosh introduction. But Chiat/Day already had worked on such a concept in a 1982 print ad that never ran.
Executives say Mr. Sculley, who was selected as Ad Age's Adman of the Year for Apple's successful performance in 1984, had little involvement with the creation of Macintosh or "1984." Mr. Hayden credits Mr. Jobs for cajoling the agency to excel.
"There's no way that your ordinary [client] would have approved that spot-or, more importantly, stimulated that spot," Mr. Hayden says. "When we came up with the idea for doing `1984,' we weren't afraid to present that to [Mr. Jobs]. The fact [was] that he would get this better than anybody else we could present it to."
Mr. Hayden says "1984" also grew out of the bond between Mr. Jobs and Chiat Chairman Jay Chiat. It wasn't a cozy relationship—Mr. Jobs constantly threatened to fire the agency—but more a meeting of minds.
"They're both extremely confrontational, very aggressive and constantly dissatisfied, and always pushing, pushing," Mr. Hayden says. "There are some people that talented people are attracted to because they irritate us into being better than we are. They abuse you into doing great things."
With the same drive inside Apple, Mr. Jobs tried to change the way the world copes with the computer age. His Macintosh eschewed the foreign language of computers in favor of a friendly little box with intuitive on-screen icons like a "trash can" or "folder," "windows" to put several files on the screen at once and a "mouse" to move the cursor.
Mr. Murray says the Macintosh marketing plan originated with a newspaper clipping Mr. Jobs saw about the marketing of "Star Wars." The film looked like a smash hit on opening day—in part, the story explained, because of careful lining up of promotions and product tie-ins by filmmaker George Lucas.
So Mr. Jobs sent out software evangelists like Mr. Kawasaki to convince software developers to write programs for Macintosh. Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates and other software luminaries pledged support when Macintosh was officially unveiled at Apple's January shareholders meeting.
"It really looked more like a revival meeting," says Mr. Murray, then Macintosh's marketing director.
Feature stories, pitched ahead of time, began appearing in national publications. Apple "secretly funded" development of an independent new magazine, Macworld, Mr. Murray says, by guaranteeing a certain amount of advertising and including cards for trial subscriptions inside Macintosh boxes. The magazine was later acquired by computer publishing giant International Data Group.
Apple followed the airing of the teaser "1984" spot with product advertising on TV and a 20-page magazine insert. Then the company set—and proceeded to exceed—a goal of selling 50,000 Macs in 100 days.
A star was born.
"People hate being co-opted through a PR, spin-control thing, but if people feel a phenomenon really is going on they want to be part of it," Mr. Murray says.
Apple gave birth to Macintosh with the sort of smoke and mirrors that would make Big Brother proud. Some trickery was necessary, for the original Macintosh had little power, little software, no color monitor and no ability to do letter-quality printing.
Apple also had little foresight about who would buy the Mac. During development, Mr. Hayden says, engineers viewed Macintosh as a computer that everyone would use. But everyone wasn't ready to buy in 1984, so Apple initially positioned Mac as the computer for "knowledge workers"-Applespeak for business people, professionals and students.
"We thought it would be a mainstream productivity computer that would make IBM leave the business," Mr. Kawasaki says. "It didn't exactly pan out that way."
Macintosh wasn't able to unseat IBM and its legion of clones. But it did capitalize on a trend that emerged in 1985—a software application not even envisioned when Apple was preparing the "1984" spot: desktop publishing.
The Mac was the first low-price computer with strong graphics capabilities. The computer, used with Aldus Corp.'s groundbreaking PageMaker software and Apple's new laser printer, was able to design and produce quality printed materials.
Ad agencies and companies' in-house art and communications departments soon embraced Macintosh for its graphics abilities, and Apple latched on to a "Trojan horse" strategy in which it hoped one Mac inside an office would create demand for more.
The strategy worked beautifully in ad agencies, where Macs started in the creative department and moved rapidly into production, account services and media to become the agency world's computer of choice.
Apple says the communications industry, including advertising, is the biggest business market for Macintosh, accounting for 27% of Macs in business.
"We fell into it," explains Creag Banta, VP-director of integrated systems at Foote, Cone & Belding, Chicago, a major user of Macintoshes. "The next thing you knew, they were here, there and everywhere."
The decision by ad agencies and graphics departments at large companies to embrace the Macintosh in the mid-'80s was more critical than "1984" in creating the Macintosh market, says Steven Levy, author of "Insanely Great," a history of Macintosh being published this month by Viking.
Desktop publishing, however, also saddled Macintosh with an image as the computer for graphics, not business. The machine has been a success in home and education, and it has taken hold in some large enterprises as well.
But business, especially big business, is not an easy sell. "1984" is partly to blame.
Apple, in attacking Big Brother and IBM, indirectly was attacking the keepers of centralized computers at all companies.
"The approach to what they did was so aggressively against one group of people that those people to this day are not very open to the process and remain highly skeptical or openly hostile to what the Macintosh represents," says Mr. Banta, FCB's computer guru.
Today, however, Apple is working with IBM on computer chips and software. It's also selling serious-sounding computers like the Workgroup Server 95 and has found ways for Macintoshes to be on speaking terms with other PCs. But because of the residual of "1984" and "Lemmings," Mr. Hayden says, Apple is stuck with the image of a renegade.
Mr. Hayden says some Apple executives wish the spots had never aired because the image they created conflicts with today's more mainstream Apple.
"One of the problems of a thermonuclear blast or the flash explosion is it freezes time in people's minds," Mr. Hayden says. "The early advertising had such a great impact burning things into people's vortexes that future advertising has had a terrible time evolving. We've been saying Apple talks to IBM since 1983. Apple at this point has probably spent literally billions of dollars in research and development, new products, joint ventures, alliances, press releases, shrimp and oysters for reporters. Beats there a soul so sensitive out there that believes Apple talks to IBM? No."
While Macintosh was able to ride the desktop publishing craze, it failed in its original mandate to become a ubiquitous "desktop appliance." Critics say Mr. Sculley missed a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make Macintosh the standard in the late '80s by keeping prices too high and refusing to license Macintosh software to PC clones.
Mr. Sculley opted for the status quo, allowing Microsoft Corp.'s Windows operating system to become the standard.
Mr. Sculley was simply carrying out the go-it-alone credo passed along by Mr. Jobs, says Tim Bajarin, president of Creative Strategies Research International, a market researcher. But Apple passed up a chance to grab control of the industry.
"What I think Microsoft has proven is you can make more money as an operating system company than as a hardware company," says Microsoft's Mr. Murray, the former Macintosh marketing director. "No one knew that in 1984."
Microsoft's Windows took off in 1990 after several false starts, giving standard-issue PC clones many Macintosh-like features at a lower price. More than 30 million copies of Windows have been sold worldwide over the past four years; Apple has sold some 13 million Macintoshes. Microsoft is the top seller of applications software, such as word processors, for both Macintosh and Windows computers.
But Mac is back on the attack. Apple in 1990 began slashing Macintosh prices, last year started a "does more, costs less" ad campaign and, later this year, is expected to license Macintosh software to clone marketers.
"It may be a decade late, a billion dollars short," Mr. Murray says.
Macintosh devotees inside and outside Apple spit venom at any suggestion Windows is as good as Macintosh, but they also point to the success of Windows as proof that Macintosh's approach of icons and mice was right all along.
"If Macintosh had never come along, there would have been no Windows," says Nelson Thall, president of the Marshall McLuhan Center on Global Communications, a think tank. "The Mac came out, and IBM was forced to make its computer into a Mac. The Mac didn't turn itself into an IBM."
The sales record for Apple and Macintosh is mixed. With Mr. Sculley at the helm, Apple's worldwide sales soared to $8 billion in fiscal 1993 from $1.5 billion in 1984. Apple's U.S. unit sales of computers doubled to 1.8 million in 1993 from 912,727 in 1984, according to Computer Intelligence InfoCorp., a market researcher.
But Apple's unit share of the market for computers priced below $25,000 dipped to 11.3% in 1993 from 13% in 1984, InfoCorp says. Macintosh hasn't grown fast enough to make up the market share once held by Apple II, the venerable computer Apple quietly dropped in November after a 16-year run.
Yet if Mr. Sculley is to be blamed for Mac-intosh's marketing shortcomings, he simply was exhibiting the hubris common among Apple executives and Macintosh fanatics stemming from an adamant belief that Macintosh is superior.
"Apple pursued a vision, a dream. It did not pursue a business," Ms. Hoffman says.
Apple management "just thought if you build it they would come," adds Mr. Levy, the Macintosh historian. "People did [come], but not everyone. Some people preferred a crummy ballpark."
Those present at the beginning attribute Macintosh and "1984" to luck, chemistry and perhaps divine intervention.
"`1984' was a gift of God, or at least the goddess of advertising," Mr. Hayden says.
"A lot of it has become mythical in my mind, and I was there," says Mr. Murray. "[It] seems very much like a fairy tale. The eclectic group of people who were brought together to work on the project, the amount of creativity, the refusal to accept the status quo, the freedom we were given, or just took, doing our various jobs, whether it was software developers or marketers or whatever—it's hard to find another example in American business where such a small group of people could have such a large impact on society."
At age 10, Macintosh can't keep up with faster, smarter rivals like PCs powered by Intel Corp.'s Pentium chip. So Apple this year will introduce a family of Macs with the new PowerPC chip, created jointly by Apple, IBM and Motorola.
Apple, just as in 1984, will be betting the company in 1994 on a new technology.
"What else would you expect from Apple?" says Mike Dion, VP-general manager of marketing operations in Apple's U.S. division, noting Apple's flair for getting itself into—and out of—precarious positions.
Many Mac loyalists, such as FCB, are holding back on purchases until they see if the new Macs are as wholly compatible with old Macs as Apple claims.
"The Mac without the PowerPC has reached the end of its life cycle," says FCB's Mr. Banta. "It's apparent that they're running out of steam. Either we get a Mac which is more powerful, the PowerPC, or we'll have to leave the Mac. This is one of those make-or-break things."
Macintosh has succeeded largely through the conviction of people like Mr. Banta that Mac is better. It's an ominous warning to Apple that such opinion shapers would consider leaving the fold. But there's more justification than ever before to abandon Mac. Windows PCs today can do many tasks, such as desktop publishing, that once demanded a Mac.
"You get on a technology and ride it as far as it will go," Mr. Banta says. "All revolutions eventually stop turning."