History of advertising: No 186: Apple's '1984' commercial

More than three decades after it first overwhelmed viewers with its never before-seen production values and startling storyline, Apple's "1984" TV spot is an authentic advertising game-changer.

Ironically, it was its convention-busting approach that almost consigned it to advertising’s dustbin. Not only did the Apple board regard it as – in the words of chief executive John Sculley – "the worst commercial they had ever seen", one director urged that Chiat\Day, the agency behind it, should be fired.

In fact, it was only the decision of Jay Chiat, the agency’s boss, to disobey his client’s instruction to sell off all the Super Bowl airtime purchased for the spot that cemented Apple’s place in advertising history.

What alarmed the board most was the aggressive stance taken by the commercial against Apple’s market leading rival, IBM.

"In 1983, IBM was really beating the heck out of Apple," Fred Goldberg, then Apple’s account manager at Chiat\Day, later recalled. "The board didn’t think this was a very smart-looking thing to put on the air. Here we are, slapping the industry leader in the face."

There was certainly no mistaking the target of the 60-second commercial, directed by Ridley Scott, whose 1982 film Blade Runner had the dystopian tone the agency was looking for.

Set in an Orwellian future, the spot showed a giant screen broadcasting propaganda from a Big Brother-like figure being smashed by a hammerwielding woman (the English athlete Anya Major) in front of disbelieving minions.

Despite being aired nationally just once (on 22 January 1984 during the Super Bowl), the commercial revolutionised the way high-tech products were promoted, the empowerment they could bring and how they could combat conformity and boost originality.

Apple sales topped $150m in the 100 days following the debut of "1984".

Things you need to know

  • The commercial, shot in London at a reported cost of $900,000, used local skinheads as extras. A security company had to use dogs to control them when they began rioting.
  • George Orwell’s estate claimed the commercial to be a copyright infringement and sent a "cease-and-desist" letter to Apple and Chiat\Day.
  • A 30-second version of the commercial was screened in selected areas across the US after its national debut. Steve Jobs added Boca Raton, Florida – the headquarters of IBM’s PC division – to the schedule.

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