In the early ’80s, personal computers were a luxury few could afford. IBM had nearly monopolized the PC market. Then, with a Super Bowl ad on January 22, 1984, Apple burst onto the scene with computers made for regular folks, not just the tech-savvy. The airing of the ad, directed by Blade Runner and Alien director Ridley Scott, was a watershed moment in advertising.
Prior to the 1984 ad, which borrowed heavily from George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, no one watched the Super Bowl for the commercials. Apple spent over $900k to film the commercial, plus they booked two premium Super Bowl slots, raising the cost to well over a million dollars. It was the first Super Bowl advertisement that had everyone talking the next day, and it pushed Apple to the forefront of personal electronics.
Scott already had Alien and Blade Runner under his belt by the time he was asked to direct the commercial. It’s no wonder they wanted him – he had proven that he could create science fiction dystopias with meaningful set pieces. The man who created Blade Runner was a perfect choice for a commercial about the small guy (Apple) taking on Big Brother (IBM).
The commercial itself is fascinating to watch. An unnamed heroine (played by actress and athlete Anya Major) wields a sledgehammer as she runs through an auditorium of skinheads staring at a screen. She launches the sledgehammer through the screen and the image of “Big Brother”. Wearing a tank top with the Apple logo, she symbolizes Apple taking on the big corporations. It’s a bit ironic now, given Apple’s current corporate ethos, but at the time it was groundbreaking.
Scott helped design the set, with its jet engines in full display as décor. He put out a casting call for skinheads. Anyone who came to the set with hair was paid to shave it off. He wanted a truly frightening image of a totalitarian regime controlling a dystopian future, and he nailed it. The 1984 commercial is so spot-on with regards to Orwell’s novel that his estate sent a cease-and-desist shortly after its airing. The spot has only aired in full twice – once in the wee hours of the morning in 1983 to ensure its eligibility for various awards, and then at the Super Bowl game.
The commercial’s tagline, “Why 1984 Won’t Be Like 1984”, insinuated that Apple was going to save people from Big Brother. Apple was the personal computer of the future, one that everyone could use. It was a controversial concept and Apple initially turned the creators of the ad down, but Steve Jobs loved the pitch. The ad is still eerily relevant today. President-elect Donald Drumpf tweeted yesterday about removing freedom of speech rights, imprisoning anyone who burns the American flag. In 2016, we are facing a possible 1984 scenario.
What would the world think today if an ad as searing as Apple’s were broadcast? Could it even be broadcast, with its depiction of a police state and white supremacy? It’s amazing that something so groundbreaking created 32 years ago still has such power and relevance today.
Scott did something incredible with the only commercial he ever directed. He created the social phenomenon of Super Bowl ads with a chilling vision of a nigh-hopeless future. He embedded the image of the woman throwing the sledgehammer into the television screen in our collective social conscious. The commercial is timeless and brilliant and raises itself above basic commercialism to be something revolutionary.