Twenty Ads That Shook the World – Apple 1984

Twenty Ads that Shook the World – Apple 1984

By James B. Twitchell

Apple’s 1984

The Ad as Artifact

A few years ago, in a tenderhearted and well-meaning way, an English professor at the University of Virginia, E. D. Hirsch, published a book called Cultural Literacy. It had the daunting subtitle What Every American Needs to Know. The thesis was compelling. If we want to unite as a nation, we first need to share a culture. From a white-bread professor at a white-bread university one could guess that the cultural matrix he would prescribe would be white-bread. In fact, Hirsch’s prescription for the body politic was the ingestion of massive doses of the Dead White Male culture.

Many minority groups were predictably outraged-perhaps with reason-for what follows is the kind of information the professor thought necessary for social binding. I made this list by choosing the lower right-hand entries from each page in the appendix, cleverly titled “What Literate Americans Know.”

ampersand Auschwitz biochemical pathways
Bundestag Neville Chamberlain complex sentence
cyclotron dog in the manger Elysian Fields
federalism Indira Gandhi D. W. Griffith
Hoover Dam installment buying Joseph and his brothers
Leibnitz Ferdinand Magellan Herman Melville
National Guard nucleotide paradox
planets prosecution Reign of Terror
sacred cow Shawnee Indians Battle of Stalingrad
taproot topsoil vector
Winnie the Pooh Richard Wright Zurich

Now take this list into any university in the country. Ask students how much they know about what they ought to know. Maybe they know half. Now give them this list and see how they do.

Just do it Uh-huh Colonel Sanders
Morris Feel really clean Heartbeat of America
Mmmm Mmmm good Kills bugs dead Mrs. Olsen
Fahrvergnügen Quality is job 1 Why ask why?
Two scoops! Because I’m worth it Tony the Tiger
Have it your way 99 44/100% Master the moment
57 Varieties Speedy Never had it, never will
White Knight Jolly Green Giant Mountain grown
Mr. Whipple Do you know me? Be all that you can be
Betty Crocker Still going Snap, Crackle, Pop
Aunt Jemima We try harder That’s Italian

Clearly something terrible has happened. They know almost every entry, even though much of this information predates their birth. And more interesting still, they all seem to know about the same amount. Blacks and whites, males and females, front row and back row, do have a common culture.

But advertising? That’s our culture? Of course we are embarrassed by this. That what we share is a taste not for epicurian delights but for cultural junk food is so . . . unappetizing. It has no taste, no calories. There is nothing behind this knowledge, no historical or cultural event, no reason to know it other than how to behave in the checkout line.

Yet it is precisely the recognition of jingles and brand names, precisely what high-culturists abhor, that does indeed hold us together. We may not know what is in the solar system, but we know what’s in a Big Mac.

To appreciate this rich irony, let’s go one step further. On page 193 of Hirsch’s appendix is this entry: George Orwell. Presumably we should know Mr. Orwell because he wrote the dystopian masterpiece 1984. A generation ago, the mere mention of the date rattled all who heard it. It should have. For here was a book to conjure with. Here was a book that was not just a political allegory of the modern state, but also a guide to the symbols of modern life.

In 1984, all nations are in perpetual war. The Party, run by Big Brother, sees to it that there is no peace. Should any of the proles (proletariat) step out of line and slap “Question Authority” stickers on the bumpers of their scootermobiles, they are soon visited by the Thought Police. Political conformity crushes all individuality. And how are these aberrant proles found out? They are perpetually observed via the microphone and the telescreen. By “doublethink” and the big lie, the Party continually rewrites history, continually rejiggers reality, until all strays are brought into conformity.

Advertising is omnipresent. Consumption deadens rebellion. And how does Orwell feel about advertising? In a phrase, here’s his famous definition: “the rattling of a stick in a swill bucket.”

It helps to know this to appreciate how Apple Computer introduced its Macintosh to the world. The Mac ad is called 1984; it was shown only once, in 1984, and, paradoxically, it removed George Orwell’s novel 1984 from the reservoir of cultural literacy.

Go back into that classroom of eighteen-year-olds and ask them for the meaning of “1984.” Now, admittedly, the real meaning of 1984 was effaced on New Year’s Day 1985, but the myth of Big Brother and the nefarious state was profoundly rewritten by sixty seconds in the third quarter of Super Bowl XVIII on January 22, 1984. Had you been watching, here’s what you would have seen:


BIG BROTHER: For today, we celebrate the first glorious anniversary of the Information Purification Directives. We have created, for the first time in all history . . . a garden of pure ideology . . .


Big Brother: . . . Where each worker may bloom secure from the pests of contradictory and confusing truths. Our Unification of Thought is more powerful a weapon than any fleet or army on earth. We are one people. With one will. One resolve. One cause. Our enemies shall talk themselves to death. And we will bury them with their own confusion. We shall prevail!


ANNCR: On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like “1984.”

What this official text, provided by the agency, Chiat/Day, cannot do is to pay tribute to the concussive power of this scenario. In fact, I include the words because they are of almost no importance. Ask someone who has seen the ad and they usually say there is no spoken language in it at all. That’s because the mise-en- scène is so striking.

The imagery was constructed by Ridley Scott, the director of Alien and Blade Runner. It is clear from the first image of drone humans shuffling in lockstep through what seems to be a transparent tube into the auditorium-a scene lifted from the Weimar cinema of Murnau or Lang-that Mr. Scott has no interest whatsoever in making a commercial. None. He’s clearly making a movie, an homage to German Expressionism. This is not the work of an adman on the take, but of an auteur!

As well, everything else in this commercial says it’s not one. Along with the blockbuster production values, the lingering scenes of the openmouthed drones, the storm troopers with their face masks, the big-screen portrayal of Big Brother with all the superscript words passing around his face, the audio track that picks up the young lady’s breathing, and the pacing of the pursuit into the auditorium are all the stuff of German cinema filtered through Hollywood, not American commercialism filtered through Madison Avenue.

But, of course, just as it’s not an ad, it’s not a movie. So it must be something else, some other genre. In fact, 1984 is an event, or, better yet, a pseudo-event.

Apple’s cost-conscious board of directors certainly knew it was no ad, and no movie. Whatever it was, they didn’t want it. The only symbolism they recognized was at the very end, in the last seconds, as black-and-white scenario gives way to a color image of the bitten Apple-knowledge consumed.

The board had some reason to be concerned. When the ad was copy-tested for effectiveness, it received the lowest-ever score for a business machine commercial: a net pre/post effectiveness score of 5 against a norm of 29. The range for all commercials was 13 to 42. Worse still, the norm was for thirty-second spots, and 1984 was sixty seconds (Goldberg 1994, 21). So it made sense to “can” it. They instructed the marketing staff and the agency to cancel the ad and begin selling off the broadcast time-the 120 seconds (the ad was to run twice) had already been purchased.

Apple lore-probably apocryphal-holds that the company’s quiet founder, Steve Wozniak, who was then only minimally involved, approached Steve Jobs, took out his checkbook, and said, “I’ll pay for half if you pay for the other half.”

And Chiat/Day lore holds that the agency did indeed sell one of the already purchased minutes to United Airlines and McDonald’s, but insisted that the commercial run. Detractors say they would have sold off the other minute if only there had been takers. The agency already had quite a stake in this piece of film: they had spent $400,000 to make it and ponied up $500,000 for the sixty-second slot.

Worse still, if ever there was an event that was dated, here it was. The ad either ran in 1984 or it never ran. In fact, Chiat/Day’s initial concern was that someone else would beat them to the date. They feared that a phone company, perhaps one of the Baby Bells, would use the Big Brother theme to hammer AT&T on the eve of its breakup.

No matter, creations of this magnitude always have more than enough parents. What is clear is that two days before the Super Bowl, Apple still owned the time, and the economics of the situation won out. The board grudgingly approved airing 1984.

In retrospect, the question now becomes, if it’s not an ad, and not a movie, how do we treat it? Clearly, with some confusion. For instance, Advertising Age considers it the Commercial of the Decade of the 1980s, and it won the top prize at the Cannes International Advertising Film Festival. But Entertainment Weekly did not anoint it as one of “the fifty greatest commercials of all time” (March 3, 1995): instead, they found it “just so pretentious.” In fact, in a feature that accompanies their list, the Apple spot is deemed the “most overrated commercial” ever.

So let’s just say it’s an event, albeit a pretentious one. For it did something that advertising has since repeatedly attempted. It got talked about. A lot. And in so doing, it got into communal consciousness. It became part of cultural literacy for a generation that marked its milestones not by books read or movies seen, but by ads consumed.

First, of course, the spot announces not just the product but a way of using it. The Mac is positioned not as a machine but as a style, an approach. Remember the catchphrase “user-friendly”? Here is where it starts. Without mentioning the simple Motorola 6800 microprocessor, without mentioning the affordable price of $2,500, without claiming home as opposed to office use, without foregrounding the mouse, without showing a new graphic user interface using icons, the ad does it all by using gender.

The Mac is female. Conversely, IBM must be male. IBM is not just male, it is Big Brother male. And Apple is not just female, but New Female. She is strong, athletic, independent, and, most important, liberated. After all, that’s what the young athlete is all about. She is, in terms of the 1980s, empowerment and freedom.

Freedom for all. This is not just women’s liberation. It’s for everyone. Recall that the other players in this vignette of modern times are males: all those slackjawed drones, all those once-powerful men made ciphers by the doublethink of Big Brother. Need I mention that the image being used by IBM to represent its take on modern life was Charlie Chaplin playing the Little Tramp? In fact, one of the most important impacts this ad had was on the programmers and graphic designers who wrote software. They were revolutionary players at Apple, subverters, not sold-out employees at Big Blue, company men.

Not only was this event able to layer itself over a canonical work of high culture, over the women’s movement, over IBM’s entire advertising campaign, even over the growing anti-big-government sentiment associated with the Reagan “revolution,” it also layered itself into one of the central male institutions of modern life: the Super Bowl, or, as it has since become, the Advertising Bowl.

The Super Bowl is the sweat lodge of modern masculinity. Every January millions of males, looking rather like their compatriots from Apple’s 1984, slowly file into bars, living rooms, entertainment centers, and clubs to watch what is usually a predictably dull game. The football will be moved for about eighteen minutes. Yet the show takes three hours. A few years ago a record of sorts was set when 44 percent of a forty-five-minute stretch was dedicated to commercials and promos. This is not a game. It is a carnival of commercialism.

Best yet for advertisers, it has developed the almost perfect demographics for certain products like cars, beer, and computers. Roughly 40 percent of eighteen- to forty-nine-year-old males watch the event, and almost half of those list seeing the commercials as a reason they watch. An astonishing 7 percent say they watch only for the ads.

The flood of advertising moves through the game and out into culture. More ink is spilled covering the campaigns than the game. The upstart USA Today goes all out, having sixty-eight volunteers wired to the “admeter” to record second-by-second reactions to commercials. Even The New York Times and the The Wall Street Journal dedicate tons of newsprint to the Super Bowl ads. This is why commercial time on the Super Bowl is so expensive-averaging well over $1.6 million for thirty seconds. Here you break out of advertising and become . . . an event.

The most important play in the Super Bowl is the launching of new campaigns, a legacy of this Apple ad. We know that companies making razors, colas, credit cards, beer, computers, athletic shoes, and automobiles will be showing us something new. We even know that the game will end when the Most Valuable Player says, “I’m going to Walt Disney World!” (for which he pockets $50,000 to $75,000). The next day the MVP often appears on a box of Wheaties. We know all this because, to paraphrase Yogi Berra, the Super Bowl is déjà vu all over again. See it once, you’ve seen it a thousand times. Only the ads change. But they are all attempting the same thing: be like Mac, be hip, make news.

There is a downside to this, of course. What happens to advertising when it loses its grip on the product and becomes just another form of entertainment event is that it ceases to sell. Witness Nike, Energizer batteries, Nissan, Budweiser, Pepsi, Levi’s, British Airways, to name only a few, and you will see the ineluctable influence of the advertising-made event. What you are selling is a sensation-Wow! Did You See That Ad?-an entertainment, and often that obfuscates what the product is and what it does.

Toward the end of the 1996 Clio Awards, after showcasing the year’s most brilliant ads, emcee Bill Maher quipped, “Boy, if the shows were as good as these commercials, TV wouldn’t suck so much.” That may be good news for viewers, but it sends shivers up the spines of sponsors. After all, they want you to behave exactly like the drones portrayed in 1984, quietly marching up to, and over the edge, of the buy-hole.

And, worse, once a pseudo-event has been etched into pseudo-cultural literacy, it is very hard to get it out. A year later, Chiat/Day returned to the scene of the crime with a new commercial updating 1984. In Lemmings, which introduced Apple’s Macintosh Office line of office automation products, we see another long line of drones, this time men and women dressed for success, who are wending their way up a hill. They are blindfolded. When they reach the top, each jumps off the edge of a cliff, representing businesspeople blindly following the leader. The last in line decides to pull off the blindfold as a disembodied voice says something about the Macintosh Office. Not only is this version hopeless-there is no resolution, as there was in 1984-but the assumption-IBM is for brainwashed idiots-is simply insulting. Lemmings was such a disaster that it is one of the reasons Chiat/Day lost the Apple account the following year.

Still, the legacy of Apple’s 1984 lives on-advertising as event. The idea that selling products has co-opted the traditional function of the liberal arts and is now defining the objects of common desire could have been expected. That it occasionally has been able to invest in these commercial objects the sense of the ineffable, the mysterium terrendium, might also have been predicted. After all, the purpose of a blockbuster event is generally to explode quickly into a lot of free publicity. Just like what? A book, a painting, a musical composition.

So why shouldn’t our best talents be used in its employ? Ridley Scott was just one of the first to rent his imagination. When David Lynch makes ads for Calvin Klein’s Obsession, using passages from D. H. Lawrence, Ernest Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, the “aura” of art culture is subsumed by a commercial pseudo-event. When an artist like John Frankenheimer makes ads for AT&T, when Jean-Luc Godard is employed by a French jean company, when Woody Allen makes spots for Campari, when Spike Lee produces campaigns for Levi’s, Nike, the Gap, and Barney’s, the visionary imagination that had served the Church and the State is now serving Industry. When the entire fifth floor of the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris is dedicated to the “Art of Advertising, 1890-1990,” or when the Museum of Modern Art in New York sponsors a show called “The Art and Technique of the American Television Commercial,” you know that advertising is no longer the culture of the Visigoths but the culture of Rome. It has become part of-gasp!-cultural literacy, maybe not What Every American Needs to Know, but, worse, What Every American Does Know.

Excerpted from Twenty Ads That Shook the World by James B. Twitchell Copyright© 2000 by James B. Twitchell. Excerpted by permission of The Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

James B. Twitchell, The Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.

Copyright © 2000 by James B. Twitchell. All rights reserved.

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