Thirty-one years ago, Apple and its agency Chiat/Day took a huge risk by attempting to define the Super Bowl Commercial as a cultural phenomenon. Prior to Super Bowl XVIII in 1984 people didn’t make a big deal of the commercials the way they do now, but one epic TV spot changed all that. The commercial is now recognized as arguably the greatest commercial ever. Ironically, it almost didn’t air.
The ad depicted a world of mind-controlled clones staring at a video screen showing Big Brother intoning about “information purification directives.” The police are chasing a woman athlete as she gets away and hurls a sledgehammer at the screen, smashing it and frees the minds of the throng.
The commercial was strikingly unconventional. It had no dialogue, no voice-over and no product shot or mention of product features. A mere eight seconds before the one-minute ad concludes, a narrator briefly mentions the word “Macintosh,” along with the tagline: “On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like ’1984’ “, a reference to George Orwell’s 1949 eponymous novel.
It was the opposite of anything and everything that a commercial was supposed to be, and quite risky especially for the expensive price tag of a spot on the Super Bowl.
Steve Jobs, ever the risk taker, loved the ad but Apple’s Board of Directors hated it. After viewing it, the board wanted to fire Chiat/Day. At the end, the ad ran only because Jay Chiat claimed, untruthfully, that he tried but couldn’t get the network to release them of their airtime commitment.
“1984” became a sensation, a huge success. It was a defining moment not only for Apple but also for advertising itself. It proved that taking a detour from the true and tried can be extraordinary. By taking an unusual approach even to the usual practice of exposing a commercial many times and airing it only once, Apple amplified the myth surrounding the commercial.However, risk taking can be, … well, risky. One has to assume, indeed embrace, failure as an option. Especially if you push the envelop and explore new territory.