Apple is now a multi-billion operation employing thousands of people and impacting the lives of millions of Americans every day.
But back in 1984, the company took an incredibly important step in its journey to where it is today.
That was the incredible “1984” commercial.
Typical of the company even then, the creators Steve Hayden, Brent Thomas, and Lee Clow didn’t hold back.
One, they got Ridley Scott, creator of the Alien movies, on board to direct the commercial.
Two, one its first airings was in the prestigious and highly-sought after Superbowl commercial breaks.
What is the concept?
The minute-long commercial introduces a dystopian world where shaven-headed masses, clad in what look like grey uniforms, are being addressed by a “Big Brother”-style character on a giant screen.
Suddenly, an athletic blonde woman – played by English athlete Anya Major, appears and launches a giant sledgehammer through the screen.
A voice then says: “On January 24, Apple Computers will introduce Macintosh – and you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like ‘1984’.”
This is a reference to George Orwell’s famous book “1984”, written in 1949.
The novel predicts a dystopian future ruled by a televised “Big Brother.”
Apple’s genius was to present itself as an alternative to this.
How was the commercial created?
The idea was thought of by Steve Hayden, Brent Thomas, and Lee Clow.
It was produced by New York production company Fairbanks Films and directed by Ridley Scott.
As well as Major, David Graham portrayed “Big Brother.”
In the US, it originally aired in 10 local outlets, including Twin Falls, Idaho.
This was where Chiat/Day ran the commercial on December 31, 1983, at the last possible break before midnight on KMVT, so that the advertisement qualified for the 1984 Clio Awards.
Lawsuits and the Apple board
Orwell himself was long dead by 1984, but his estate saw the commercial as a copyright violation.
Therefore, they sent a cease-and-desist letter to Apple and Chiat/Day in April 1984.
In 1995, The Clio Awards added it to its Hall of Fame, and Advertising Age placed it on the top of its list of 50 greatest commercials.
Steve Jobs and John Sculley were so enthusiastic about the final product that they purchased one and a half minutes of ad time for the Super Bowl – the most-watched television program in America.
In December 1983, they screened the commercial for the Apple Board of Directors.
To their surprise, the entire board hated the commercial.
This led to Sculley getting “cold feet” and asking Chiat/Day to sell off the two commercial spots.
Despite the board’s dislike of the film, Steve Wozniak and others at Apple showed copies to friends.
Super Bowl viewers were overwhelmed by the startling commercial.
It gathered millions of dollars worth of free publicity as news programs rebroadcast it that night.
It was quickly hailed by many in the advertising industry as a masterwork.
Advertising Age named it the Commercial of the Decade.
“One of the most influential commercials of all time”
It still continues to rank high on lists of the most influential commercials of all time.
Due to the legal action, 1984 was never broadcast again, which only added to its mystery.
The “1984” ad became a huge representation of Apple computers.
It was scripted as a thematic element in the 1999 docudrama Pirates of Silicon Valley, which explores the rise of Apple and Microsoft.
The commercial was also well-known in the 20th-anniversary celebration of the Macintosh in 2004.
Apple even reposted a new version of the commercial on its website and showed it during Jobs’ Keynote Address at Macworld Expo in San Francisco, California.
In the updated version, an iPod, complete with signature white earbuds, was added to the heroine.
Keynote Attendees were given a poster showing the heroine with an iPod as a gift.
The ad has also been seen as the turning point for Super Bowl commercials.
This had been important and popular before, but after “1984” those commercials became the most expensive, creative, and influential advertising set for all television.
The commercial was revisited in Harper’s Magazine thirty years after it aired.
As Jobs said in his own words:
“It is now 1984. It appears IBM wants it all. Apple is perceived to be the only hope to offer IBM a run for its money.”
And 38 years later, Apple continues to be one of the world’s biggest companies.