| By J. Robert Parks |
Television commercials that have resonated with the U.S. public have historically relied on jingles, catchphrases, or quirky humor. Yet one of the most famous ads in television history had none of those. Instead, it featured a dystopic vision based on George Orwell’s book 1984 and didn’t even show the product it was selling. Nonetheless, Apple’s “1984” commercial, which first ran 40 years ago this week on December 31, 1983, has been widely hailed as one of the greatest commercials of all time and a sign of the company’s creative brilliance. Educators and librarians looking to help students understand the history of commercials, the early days of Apple, or how advertising has reflected and shaped U.S. culture will find plenty of resources in Gale In Context: U.S. History.
The commercial’s impact was due to a combination of its visual style, its striking sound design, and its use of archetypes that grab the audience. It’s worth finding on YouTube if you’ve never seen it. Even 40 years later, there are few ads that you can compare it to. The ad was directed by Ridley Scott, who is best known for such movie blockbusters as Gladiator and Alien but got his start as a crackerjack commercial director. For the Apple ad, Scott brought his strong sense of visual flair and uncanny understanding of how to communicate through images and sound. The outcome was something that marketers and advertising experts have been studying ever since.
One of the interesting aspects of analyzing history, however, is realizing how often contemporary ideas of the past are complicated by faulty recollections. For example, pretty much every reference to Apple’s “1984” ad in the last 20 years mentions that it only played once—during the National Football League’s Super Bowl—but that was actually its second showing. It first aired a few weeks earlier, on December 31, 1983, but what people frequently remember was the Super Bowl ad.
An even more significant mistaken assumption is that the commercial was a triumph for Apple’s business. Because people talked and wrote about the ad at the time—and have continued to write about it—people believe that it must’ve launched the Macintosh computer into the stratosphere, but that wasn’t the case at all. Although the Macintosh became enormously popular with a small group of users, it was a flop with its primary target audience: businesspeople. In fact, the computer sold so poorly that Steve Jobs, who had cofounded Apple with Steve Wozniak, left the company a year later. It was only when he returned to the company in 1997 and helped oversee the release of the iPod and especially the iPhone that Jobs and Apple became the icons people think of them as. Gale In Context: U.S. History provides insights into popular culture that has shaped our modern lives.
Similarly, the commercial is often held up as an example of the brilliance and success of its creators at the agency Chiat/Day. It certainly is a brilliant ad—and Chiat/Day deserves the many accolades it has received—but the commercial actually undermined Chiat/Day in its relationships with Apple and other companies. Because the ad was so forward thinking and unconventional, Apple’s executives hated it. Furthermore, Chiat/Day gained a reputation for making advertisements that made the agency look good but resulted in spotty sales results for the products the ads were designed to market.
Still, the commercial was enormously influential. It helped position Apple as the scrappy, creative underdog to the behemoths of IBM and later Microsoft. That gave it enormous cachet with designers, filmmakers, and other creative professionals, who were Apple mainstays during its dark days in the late 1980s and 1990s. The commercial also transformed the Super Bowl. Although the Super Bowl was enormous even in 1984, it wasn’t the advertising juggernaut that it would become—to the point where a large part of the audience now watches primarily for the commercials in between the game. The “1984” ad is regarded as one of the main reasons for that shift.