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Apple's '1984' spot: a love-hate story

Apple made waves last week with its long-awaited announcement that it is transitioning its Mac computer line to Apple-designed chips, leaving behind the Intel processors it started using in 2005.

For devotees of Apple desktops and laptops, it’s a welcome signal that the Cupertino, Calif., tech giant remains serious about what was once its core business—until the iPhone came along and overshadowed everything. It’s been a sometimes rough ride since then for Mac purists, given irregular hardware update schedules, sometimes balky components (hello, MacBook keyboards) and some occasionally rather insane pricing (e.g., the optional $699 wheels for the Mac Pro tower).

Apple’s recommitment to the Mac had us heading down the rabbit hole of our print archives for this edition of “90 Years of Ad Age.” Because, while the iPhone, which launched 13 years ago today (June 29), arguably sold itself, the Mac did not. Apple needed advertising—compelling, break-through-the-clutter advertising—to sell the Macintosh to consumers who were happy with their old-school (and quite popular) Apple II computers, or who were already in the grips of the dominant competition: the IBM/Microsoft PC ecosystem. If Steve Jobs hadn’t teamed up with Chiat/Day in the early ’80s to transform Apple into one of the greatest marketing machines of all time, it’s hard to imagine that the scrappy startup (Apple was barely 8 years old when the Macintosh launched) would have thrived, let alone survived.

“Apple ‘1984’ spot: A love/hate story” reads the headline atop the front page of the Jan. 30, 1984, issue of Advertising Age. Yep, the Macintosh-launching Super Bowl ad, now widely regarded as a masterpiece, provoked mixed feelings at the time—just like the computer it obliquely promoted. Remember, the Macintosh (Apple didn’t really start officially shorthanding it to “Mac” until around 1998) was an oddball piece of equipment, with its unfamiliar graphical user interface, mouse and built-in screen; serious business users initially thought of it as a toy given the woeful lack of second-party software available for it at launch.

‘Zombie-like citizens’

Keep in mind that “1984” didn’t even show the damn thing. Instead, as Ad Age described it at the time, “The futuristic commercial, filmed by British director Ridley Scott, depicted a society drawn from [George] Orwell’s novel. In the spot, a woman athlete runs through a throng of zombie-like citizens and smashes the screen image of ‘Big Brother’ with a sledgehammer. The arresting visual style and obvious expense of the production—not to mention the unusual strategy and story line—stimulated much debate.”

In the “hate” column: Curvin O’Rielly, then a senior VP and executive creative director at Ogilvy & Mather, Chicago, who told Ad Age, “I think it’s sophomoric; I think it’s indulgent.” 

In the “love” column: Richard Stanwood, 
then president and chief creative officer at Leo Burnett USA, who told us, “I think the spot 
was sensational.” 

It’s worth noting that while “1984” had only one proper national TV airing (during the third quarter of Super Bowl XVIII) in addition to some scattered showings in movie theaters—plus a one-off airing on Dec. 31, 1983, on KMVT in Twin Falls, Idaho (Chiat/Day snuck that in so the spot would be eligible for honors in the imminent ad-awards season)—there’s a whole other sustained side story to the Macintosh’s launch marketing

“The real blitz begins,” reads the headline of Ad Age’s companion story to our “1984” coverage. We reported that “new, simple, product-oriented commercials” would shortly begin airing during ABC’s Winter Olympics coverage as part of a “$15 million, 100-day-long ad blitz introducing the computer” in a sort of “complete reversal” of the aesthetic of the Ridley Scott spot. Chiat/Day also produced those ads, which featured “a voiceover stressing simplicity and advanced technology. ‘The real genius of Macintosh is that you don’t have to be a genius to use it’ is one copy line.

Of course, nobody remembers those ads as “sensational” or “indulgent”—if they remember them at all—but they helped sell a lot of Apple computers.