Today in Apple history: World gets a chance to test-drive a Mac

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Apple's innovative
Apple's innovative "Test Drive a Macintosh" ad campaign urged potential customers to take a Mac for a spin.
Photo: Apple

November 8: Today in Apple history: Test-drive a Mac November 8, 1984: When initial Mac sales prove disappointing, Apple CEO John Sculley dreams up the “Test Drive a Macintosh” campaign to encourage people to give Apple’s revolutionary new computer a chance.

While 200,000 would-be Apple customers take advantage of the offer, Apple dealers absolutely hate it.

The “Test Drive a Macintosh” campaign was designed to let skeptical users — many of whom had never seen a graphical user interface, used a mouse, or had much experience with non-IBM computers — wrap their heads around Apple’s new machine.

The promotional strategy advised people in possession of a credit card to drop into their local retailer and “borrow” a Macintosh for a period of 24 hours. The idea was that, by the time customers had to return their Mac, they would have built up a bond with it and realized they couldn’t live without one.

Goodbye, 1984

The campaign was accompanied by several memorable TV commercials. One showed what appeared to be the outline of a high-end sports car obscured by a dust cover.

“It’s powerful,” purred the narrator with fetishistic admiration, as the camera took in all the curves and smooth edges hidden underneath the sheet. “It’s responsive. It handles beautifully. And it’ll blow the doors off anything else in its class.”

At that point, the cover gets whisked away — and the big reveal is that the narrator isn’t talking about a sleek Ferrari or Mercedes, but rather a mouse connected to the Mac.

The campaign was pure Sculley: more optimistic and less bleak than Apple’s memorable “1984 dystopian future” Mac ad, with a fun, high-concept hook.

At his previous job as president of PepsiCo, Sculley concocted the legendary Pepsi Challenge campaign, which asked customers to take part in a fun experiment. “Test Drive a Macintosh” was more of the same.

“Automobiles were bought for emotional reasons as much as any practical reason,” Sculley told me when I was writing my book The Apple Revolution. (There was also the unspoken bonus that nobody thought twice about upgrading their car every few years if they could afford it.)

Computer as status symbol

It was this “emotional reason” that Apple wanted to tap into. Cars were Americana. They were status symbols. They made your life easier and more comfortable.

“The idea of test-driving a car itself is not a controversial idea,” former Apple marketing manager Mike Murray told me. “It’s very acceptable behavior, whether you might buy the car or not. A person can go into a dealership, whether it’s for a Ferrari or a Ford, and say they’d like to test-drive a particular car. The salesperson would say, ‘Sure, let’s go,’ and you’d hop into the car and go for a ride.

“If we hadn’t used that phrase and instead had created a campaign called ‘Take a Mac Home for a Night,’ no one would have done it,” Murray continued. “It wouldn’t have made any sense at all for somebody to go into a computer store and say, ‘I want to take that computer home for a night.’ There would be no emotional memories or persuasion or feelings. We had to draw on past cognitive experiences, and the test drive of a car was the obvious metaphor.”

To launch the campaign, Apple shelled out upward of $2.5 million for all 40 pages of advertising in the November 1984 election edition of Newsweek magazine. The final page was a fold-out ad announcing the offer.

“It’s unclear whether Apple has an advertising insert in Newsweek or whether Newsweek has an insert in an Apple brochure,” Sculley quipped in a November 8 interview with the San Francisco Chronicle.

Mixed reviews for ‘Test Drive a Macintosh’

In the end, the campaign met with mixed reviews. Around 200,000 customers took advantage of it. I’ve spoken with Apple fans who got their first taste of the Mac by taking one home for 24 hours — only to fall in love and never buy a computer made by another company again.

On the other end of the spectrum, computer dealers hated the campaign. Macs were already in short supply. Loaning them out meant lots of paperwork for no guaranteed sale, and also ensured that Macs might not actually be available in stores when real customers came along to buy one.

In addition, many testers returned the Macs in slightly worse condition than when loaned. The damage, while typically not bad enough to charge the shopper, still could be noticeable.

Apple never again ran a “test drive” campaign. Still, it’s hard to write off this strategy as a total failure — even if it didn’t spur a Mac sales bump.

Today, Apple is synonymous with luxury brands and, with rumors of a possible Apple car, an update of the “car sheet” ad could happily run in 2017 as a fun bit of trolling on Apple’s part.

Do you remember the “Test Drive a Macintosh” campaign? When did you first “test drive” a Mac? Leave your comments below.