1984: How Apple's TV ad changed everything, and why 2014 won't be anything like it either

Thirty years ago today Apple advertised the Macintosh nationally for the first time. That's a footnote that in and of itself isn't remarkable, but it's how they did it that everyone remembers: the 1984 ad. Thirty years on, the 1984 ad is still remembered as one of the best TV ads of all time. But why?

The 60 second spot, directed by Ridley Scott, depicts a dystopian scene where people shuffle through an industrial setting, sitting slack-jawed on long benches in a giant theater, in front of a huge screen where a Big Brother-like figure jabbers a menacing totalitarian screed:

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, where each worker may bloom, secure from the pests purveying contradictory truths. Our Unification of Thoughts 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!

A lone figure - a runner, a young woman wearing colorful clothing evocative of Apple's graphic identity at the time, comes running up the center aisle with a large hammer in hand. As she approaches the screen she spins, lets out a yell and releases the hammer. It strikes the screen and causes it to explode, shocking the slack-jawed workers into action.

An unseen narrator then announces:

On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you'll see why 1984 won't be like "1984."

The 60 second spot ran nationally only once, during Super Bowl XVIII, though Apple did run the ad at a local station in Idaho in December, 1983 to enable it to be eligible for advertising awards. It was also show in movie theaters. And it made a huge impact. It seems to be a perennial shoe-in for collections of the best television advertisements of all time.

For Apple, 1984 was the beginning of a new era.

The company was still riding high on the success of its Apple II computer - the most popular computer in the world in its day. But IBM and other companies began to crowd the marketplace with their own computers - many of them unremarkable, undistinguished boxes, all with command line-driven interfaces that were indecipherable to many people without computer training.

The Macintosh was the reaction to that. Inspired by work done at Xerox's PARC facility, the Mac project had been started several years before. An earlier attempt at an Apple computer with a graphical user interface called the Lisa (named after Steve Jobs' daughter) hadn't been commercially successful, and Apple needed another hit.

IBM was never mentioned in the advertisement, nor was its presence even inferred, and in later years, the executives at the ad agency responsible for coming up with the 1984 spot deny that IBM was the specific target. Instead, they wanted to appeal to the burgeoning sense among the general public that computers were becoming increasingly complicated, creating a digital divide between people who knew how to use them and people who didn't. We were headed towards a future of mindless servitude in thrall of those machines.

While IBM may not have been in the minds of the Chiat/Day ad execs who created the 1984 spot, it clearly was on Steve Jobs' mind when he unveiled the Mac ad to Apple employees at a company keynote in late 1983. In his preamble, Jobs talked about how Apple and IBM were toe-to-toe, vying for the hearts and minds of the same customers. And how Apple was the only viable alternative to an IBM-dominated PC market:

The Mac was positioned as the alternative to computer conformity - a device for expressing your originality and your creativity. Steve Jobs would later go on to describe computers as "like a bicycle for our minds."

Apple described the Mac in those early days in its advertising as "the computer for the rest of us." Personal computers - even Apple II's - were difficult to use for the layman, requiring you to know computer commands and even programming languages in order to get them to work. The idea of a point-and-click user interface was revolutionary. What better way to sell a revolutionary computer than with a revolutionary advertisement?

While the influence of the Mac itself would wax and wane, and while Apple's fortunes would rise and fall, the 1984 ad has remained hugely popular and hugely influential over the years. It heavily influenced other prominent ad agencies to follow suit. And it gave birth to the rise of the cinematic Super Bowl ad.

The 1984 ad's success will never be duplicated. It was an event, and part of its impact was because it was so unexpected and so beyond the realm of what had been done before.

Apple's business has certainly changed over the years — the Mac is now incremental to a bottom line that's dominated by smartphone and tablet sales, markets that didn't exist for Apple ten years ago.

But Apple's focus on innovation, on empowering the consumer, and on disrupting the markets in which it operates remains the same.

Which is why 2014 won't be like 1984, either.

Have something to say about this story? Share your comments below! Need help with something else? Submit your question!

Peter Cohen

Managing Editor of iMore, Mac and gaming specialist and all-around technologist. Follow him on Twitter @flargh

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Reader comments

1984: How Apple's TV ad changed everything, and why 2014 won't be anything like it either

18 Comments

I'll preface this by saying that this is not a criticism you personally, just surprise. By 1992, Apple had sold maybe 10 million computers of various types, and not only did you not know anyone who owned one, but no-one ever mentioned one to you? It just seems hard to believe, that's all.

In the 80s (or even 90s), no one I knew had a Mac either. We all were kinda "nerdy" so Macs weren't a real option... They were build for computer novices..

We Mac users looked at it differently. To us, a PC-compatible was a computer you used if you wanted to learn how computers worked. A Mac was a computer you used if you actually wanted to get things done.

No doubt Steve meant IBM. What an incredibly exciting time if you were in the industry.

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In 1984, Apple was an outsider railing against the controlled gardens of the incumbents.

In 2014, Apple is the largest tech company out there, channelling everything they make into their own gardens they control.

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It was never about controlling "gardens." It was about being able to buy a computer that was designed from the ground up for a novice (i.e. the rest of us) to use.

It's still true today. Apple still focuses on the end user experience, rather than a checklist of features.

In 1984, Apple was an outsider railing against the controlled gardens of the incumbents

In point of fact, Apple was the incumbent. In the early 1980s, Apple was selling the most popular personal computer in the world. The day the company went public, it minted more instant millionaires than another IPO in history. Apple II computers were wildly popular.

But Jobs' bravado in the video above notwithstanding, Apple faced very real competition in the form of IBM. One thing the 1984 ad did was to crystallize the philosophical difference between how Apple saw the microcomputer market compared to a company whose initials stood for International Business Machines.

It could easily be argued that Apple has actually become "Big Brother" in that with iOS they serve hundreds of millions of devices, form more than 90% of the useable market, and strictly lock down said devices and OS so that users are only allowed to do certain things. They arbitrarily remove and add features to iOS and their devices and we have no choice in the matter. As someone who lived through the bad old IBM and Microsoft days, I honestly don't see much difference. It's just sad that there is no "other" Apple out there to set us free of the domination of iOS and the dogma of iOS 7.

In 1984 it was about getting a machine designed to be usable by regular people rather than technology enthusiasts or those with advanced training. The 1984 reference was simply to go against the grain and not buy what businesses told you to buy, but rather what was suited to you, not business.

This is still true today with OS X and iOS. Removing and adding features (as if you had a choice with MS or Android?) is but a minor nitpick with regards to the overall design intent. Yeah, sometimes I don't agree with their decisions either, but that doesn't detract from the fact that Apple is still designing products for the average user and not tech geeks.

As someone else who lived through the bad old IBM and MS days, I see the difference. The difference is you became technically literate over that time and you may no longer be Apple's target customer.

Nice write-up. Apple doing what Apple does best. Taking something we are aware of & making it approachable so that we want it.
So what will Apple wow is w/next?
An optical / neural interface? Holographic FaceTime - from a watch?

*"It was also show in movie theaters."
...shown.
:D

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1984 was the start and what would have happened if the Knowledge navigator followed the Macintosh?

One can imagine, but at least we have Siri and the iPad.

As long as apple doesn't forget the key thing, making things simple to use and useful. I'll still keep buying their products.

This is the first time seeing this ad. Wow how time has changed. It's funny how you can see some of the elements used in today's ads.

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This is ad is great because it sticks in people's minds. It was simple and artistic worthy of it being a Super Bowl ad. Matt Groening even did a version of this ad in an episode of Futurama.
On a side note - the menu bar at the top of every Mac computer has changed very little since its inception and Microsoft came out with theirs for Win '95 in response.