Today in Apple history: Mac’s ‘1984’ ad debuts in theaters

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1984
Before it won the Super Bowl, Apple's iconic Mac ad invaded theaters.
Photo: Chiat/Day/Apple

January 17: Today in Apple history: Mac's '1984' ad debuts in theaters January 17, 1984: A week before its famous airing during Super Bowl XVIII, Apple’s iconic “1984” ad debuts as a trailer in movie theaters.

To hype its revolutionary new Macintosh computer, Apple buys several months of promotion from theatrical ad distributor ScreenVision. Cupertino’s sci-fi-tinged “1984” spot — which depicts a sledgehammer-wielding freedom fighter taking on a Big Brother figure supposed to represent IBM —
gets such a favorable audience reaction that some theater owners continue to roll the ad after Apple’s contract ends.

“1984” is Apple’s most important ad

The erroneous claim that Apple’s “1984” ad aired just once continues to thrive. Yes, the ad most memorably ran during 1984’s Super Bowl. But many forget its extraordinary theatrical run.

The spot’s earliest showing was, as it happens, at 1 a.m. in Twin Falls, Idaho, on the last day of 1983, so as to make it eligible for ad awards the following year.

Ridley Scott directed the “1984” ad. Back then, most knew Scott for making Alien and Blade Runner, although he possessed a strong advertising background. The ad played on imagery from George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four novella, presenting Apple as rebels fighting a technocratic elite.

A controversial change to Apple advertising

At the time, the”1984″ Mac ad worried Apple’s board of directors.

The spot certainly was a lot gloomier than the company’s previous commercials, which traded on the comedic timing of Apple celebrity spokesman Dick Cavett. There was nothing cuddly about the new Macintosh ad, which was firmly rooted in the burgeoning dystopian cyberpunk aesthetic.

Years later, ad man Steve Hayden described the chaotic production of the controversial commercial.

“The first version of the spot was more Jetsons than Metropolis,” Hayden said. “The intention was to remove people’s fears of technology at a time when owning your own computer made about as much sense as owning your own cruise missile. We wanted to democratize technology, telling people that the power was now literally in their hands.”

Despite the internal controversy at Apple, Steve Jobs ultimately ensured that the eye-catching ad aired. It turned into a massive critical success — even if an argument could be made, based on poor early Mac sales, that it didn’t sell the computer hard enough.

Nevertheless, it was event marketing. The fact that people still talk about it and use it as a reference point years later makes it critically important in Apple’s history.

Was “1984”  the best Apple ad ever?

While the “1984” ad rocked the advertising world, a similarly themed sequel (dubbed “Lemmings” and promoting Macintosh Office) bombed hard a year later.

Do you remember your first viewing of the “1984” ad? Is it your favorite Apple ad of all time? If not, what is? Leave your comments below.