This article will kick off a series of retrospectives on classic commercials from the advertising world: the adverts that have shaped the ways commercials are conceived, produced and distributed.

When it came to deciding which to start with, there really was only one answer: Apple’s ground-breaking advert for the Macintosh, titled ‘1984’. The advert, first shown during the Super Bowl game in December of 1983, is remarkably ahead of its time and is considered avant-garde even by today’s standards. It depicts a dystopian future closely modelled on George Orwell’s novel.

We see a herd of brain-washed workers shuffle into a large auditorium, where the projected face of ‘Big Brother’ preaches about a ‘garden of ideology’. A woman wielding a sledgehammer runs into the chamber, pursued by armoured guards. She hurls her weapon at the virtual dictator, causing an explosion of blinding whiteness. The text promises that, because of the release of the Macintosh, “1984 won’t be like 1984”.

The concept was created by Apple’s PR firm, Chiat/Day, specifically by Creative Director Lee Clow and copywriter Steve Hayden. The concept originally pitched in 1982 to promote the Apple II. The idea behind the ad was that the ease-of-use of Apple’s computers gave the power of technology to the people, rather than corrupt rulers. While it was originally rejected by the executives at Apple, Steve Jobs encouraged them to develop it for its upcoming Macintosh.

John Sculley, then Apple’s CEO, disliked the advert, but because of Job’s enthusiasm for the concept, approved it for production. Chiat/Day hired visionary director Ridley Scott to call the shots. Given Scott had recently directed sci-fi classics ‘Alien’ and ‘Blade Runner’, he was the perfect choice for the project. Under his direction, the dystopian future is incredibly atmospheric and sombre. Scott’s attention to detail is also noticeable: some of the slaves, for example, wear elephantine breathing masks, indicating the dour state of health and pollution.

The advert was shot in Scott’s native England. Looking for bald extras, cast several British skinheads, a subculture of shaven-headed youths, with a notorious reputation for racism. In retrospect, these figures seem to foreshadow the ‘Engineers’, the alien race from Scott’s recent sci-fi films Prometheus and Alien Covenant.

While Chiat/Day and Jobs were ecstatic about the final result, the Apple Board were far from satisfied and suggested Apple drop Chiat/Day as their PR firm. Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak greatly supported the ad, going so far as offering to pay for the Superbowl spot out of his own money, if it was refused. Eventually, CEO Sculley put the decision to marketing manager Bill Campbell. Needless to say, he was a fan, and the rest is history.

The ad grabbed more headlines than the actual Super Bowl game and proved so popular it generated $5 million in free publicity, thanks to repeat plays on news programmes. The 1984 advert was undoubtedly a trendsetter. It began a tradition of using the Super Bowl to premiere high-end commercials that generate huge amounts of talk. It showed the power of producing commercials in a cinematic style. And most importantly, it showed that a commercial doesn’t need to show the product to be effective. In fact, not showing the Macintosh computer is perhaps this ad’s greatest masterstroke. It built a huge amount of curiosity in the audience back then, and it doesn’t feel dated today. This style of this has become increasingly popular, such as the Sainsbury’s ad ‘1914’ or Spike Jonze’s Kenzo World fragrance commercial. They are ads that capture the feeling or spirit of the brand and intrigue the viewer to find out more.

There’s no doubt that the combination of the moody atmosphere and lack of product made this a very risky ad for Apple, but thanks to the creative team sticking to their guns, it proved to be a gamble that paid off. As Jobs himself said, “Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice.”

Would you like to have your own groundbreaking commercial for your business but you don’t know where to start? Drop us a line, we can’t wait to hear from you!