Decoding the Success of 1984 Macintosh Super Bowl Ad

Posted by Varun Sharma on August 10, 2020

“Hypnotized people are marching towards the central hall where they are being addressed by a televised Big Brother. A blond girl in athletic shorts and a white tank top enters with a hammer. She runs towards the screen and hurls the hammer towards it. There is a huge explosion as the hammer hits the screen. It is followed by scrolling black text—“On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like 1984.”

That’s how the script of 1984 ad for Apple Macintosh goes on the screen.

Aired in 1984 during Super Bowl American football tournament, the ad aimed to create buzz for Apple Macintosh to be launched shortly.

The TV commercial is also appeared to be a spoof on the monopoly of its arch-rival, IBM.

The 60-second ad was directed by Ridley Scott who has already shot into the fame for Blade Runner and later made Alien and Gladiator.

1984 was inspired from George Orwell’s 1949 novel of the same name which depicted a dystopian future “ruled by a televised Big Brother”. George Orwell in his novel opined how computers would control the world like Big Brother. But the ad showed the end of that “control”.

Interestingly, the ad wasn’t well-received by experts who declared it a great flop. Thanks to its futuristic approach and strange plot with keeping the product in suspense.

John Sculley, then CEO of Apple, recalled the moment after the ad was showed to the board—

“The others just looked at each other, dazed expressions on their faces … Most of them felt it was the worst commercial they had ever seen. Not a single outside board member liked it.”

Even the marketing firm that was testing the ad declared it the “least effective” ad they’ve ever worked on. The average score for a commercial was 29, but the 1984 ad managed to score only 5 in their testing.

And this was the same advertisement that stunned the entire nation when released.

The impact was so huge that people used to rush to electronic stores across the nation to buy Macintosh.

The next three months after the Super Bowl witnessed the sale of Macintoshes worth $155 million.

While the ad made Mac one of the best-selling computers of its time, it helped Apple turn into a computing giant.

It also made into the list of the greatest ads ever made. In fact, 1984 is credited to start the current era of Super Bowl ad, in which ads are as popular as the game itself.

Why Apple 1984 was a dream success? How it influenced people to buy Macintosh?

The success ingredients of the ad go beyond those cinematic experience and futuristic approach.

It hit the bull’s eye because of these factors…

Rebellious Nature of Apple:

IBM used to have a monopoly over the computer market in the 1980s.

This was also the time when many new computer companies came into existence.

In the wake of all this, Apple, which rose from an electronic and hobbyist background, was looking to capitalize on its first commercial success, Apple II.

It was challenging to do in the market being dominated by IBM. IBM was alleged to remove “obstacles” in its way of glory.

The triggers of this ad can be sensed in the speech of Steve Jobs at the 1983 Apple Keynote—

“Apple is perceived to be the only hope to give IBM a run for its money. Dealers, once welcoming IBM with open arms now fear an IBM dominated and controlled future! They are increasingly and desperately turning back to Apple as the only force that can assure their future freedom! 

IBM wants it all and is aiming its guns on its last obstacle to industry control – Apple! Will ‘Big Blue’ dominate the entire computer industry?”

Instead of adopting a mild strategy, Apple decided to take on IBM with its 1984 TV commercial. In the advertisement, the Big Brother is supposed to be IBM while the followers are its users.

Walter Isaacson, the author and journalist, said,”

“What the ad did was in Steve Jobs’ DNA into the soul of Apple. It became a company that was rebellious. That was for misfits and round pegs in square holes but people who wanted to control their own destiny.”

The theme of the ad was freedom vs. control and stagnation vs. innovation. And this message just clicked with the customers.

The Creative Vision of Steve Jobs:

Steve Jobs Biography

Steve Jobs was a great visionary. He not only made his company grabbing market share from rivals but also revolutionized the way people work and communicate with Apple’s offerings.

No wonder that such “out of the box” ad was envisioned by Steve Jobs.

Talking about the work methodology of Steve Jobs, Brent Thomas, then art director of the Chiat/Day on the 1984 project, said—

“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.”

Steve was a risk-taker and didn’t afraid of making a mistake.

Lee Clow, creative director of 1984, quoted Steve Jobs’ challenge,”

“I gotta introduce Macintosh. It’s gotta be dramatic; it gotta be famous, it gotta be different. I want something that nobody else would do.”

His creative risks can be seen in his approach to design, marketing and leadership. And 1984 ad was no exception.

The Promise of Innovative Technology:

The role of technology, according to Steve, is to empower people, not to control them.

His mission for Apple is better explained by Tim Cook as he says—

“His vision for Apple was a company that turned powerful technology into tools that were easy to use, tools that would help people realize their dreams and change the world for the better.,”

1984 ad seems to be the reflection of this vision.

The athletic girl throws a hammer at the screen—or in the face of Big Brother. It means that Apple Macintosh would break stagnant technology to provide innovative, fresh and useful devices to people. As stated in Steve Job’s speech, people were looking to overcome “dominated and controlled future” by a handful of computer companies.

The idea of Apple “to bring freedom, not control” worked. Apple really lived up to its promise as Macintosh turned out to be a game-changer of its time.

Bottom Line:

1984 was really an ahead of a time TV commercial. But that is not the only reason behind its success. The advertisement stands for the vision of Apple—to provide innovative and user-friendly technology. The theme of the ad was to break the shackles of monopoly and control to move towards freedom.

Apple has always stepped ahead of its competitors due to its belief in giving the world something innovative, something better, and something that can change their life.

The ad also teaches some valuable marketing lessons, from implying a fearless approach to aligning the product to the company’s vision.

What do you think? Let us know by commenting below!

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