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.

Peter Cohen