January 20, 1985: Apple attempts to build on the triumph of the previous year’s “1984” Macintosh commercial with another Super Bowl ad.
Called “Lemmings,” the ad for a new business platform called Macintosh Office depicts blindfolded executives marching to their doom. The widely reviled ad will go down in history as one of Apple’s biggest stinkers.
As I noted in a recent “Today in Apple history,” the “1984” Macintosh commercial directed by Ridley Scott proved a massive boon for Apple. It garnered masses of publicity and represented a new artistic high for tech advertising. It also effectively establish an image of Apple as an underdog fighting Big Brother that the company maintained for decades.
A sequel was inevitable. Apple decided on the following year’s Super Bowl as the venue, suggesting that this could become a tradition for Cupertino.
Great expectations for Apple’s Super Bowl ad
The Super Bowl XIX was a good choice. It was a massive event in and of itself. It was the first Super Bowl aired on ABC, and the first with a sitting U.S. president taking part in the coin toss. The big game even took place in Stanford, California, making it a Silicon Valley-centric edition of the massive sporting event.
Apple’s ad agency, Chiat/Day, tried to get Scott back to direct the second commercial, but failed. Instead, the agency landed his brother, Tony Scott (who went on to direct movies including Top Gun, Beverly Hills Cop II and True Romance).
Apple hypes The Macintosh Office with ‘Lemmings’
The “Lemmings” ad was supposed to sell a new product called The Macintosh Office, which was designed to connect a group of Macs to a LaserWriter printer and allow them to share information using a file server.
The product wasn’t anywhere near as exciting as the Macintosh’s launch from the previous year. But the goal was also to sell skeptical customers on Apple’s new product line. At that point, Mac sales remained a fraction of what they should have been.
Unfortunately, the concept for the commercial was terrible. Singing a grim version of “hi-ho, hi-ho, it’s off to work we go,” the ad’s unseeing office drones trudged up a hill, only to follow each other off a cliff. Eventually, one businessman removes his blindfold and looks around, finding himself alone with Macintosh Office.
‘Lemmings’ is a critical and commercial failure
Apple paid $900,000 for its 30-second slot on the Super Bowl. Given that the previous year’s ad reportedly earned around $5 million in publicity, Apple considered this a price worth paying.
Looking back, the “Lemmings” ad makes me sympathize a bit with the Apple executives who vehemently opposed running the original “1984” ad due to its bleak tone. Yes, they were clearly wrong in their judgement in 1984. But the difference between the two ads is not as great as you might think.
Both were directed by an acclaimed commercial mastermind. Both used the same drab color palette to depict a world without Apple. And both depicted zombielike individuals, awoken to the possibility of the Mac.
What “Lemmings” lacked was the urgency of the previous year’s ad and its sense of joyous rebellion. A man not jumping off a cliff doesn’t play the same as a sledgehammer-tossing woman smashing the enemy, no matter how much you try to believe it will.
“That was clearly a mistake, showing all of your potential customers jumping off a cliff,” Alan Oppenheimer, who worked for Apple at the time, told me for my book The Apple Revolution.
Bad ad causes turmoil for Apple
The ad reportedly offended Debi Coleman, one of the key people in the Macintosh division, so badly that she quit the company on the spot. She typed up her resignation on her Mac and printed it out on a LaserWriter.
“The day after the Super Bowl, our telephone lines were overloaded with calls from irate people claiming they would never buy an Apple product again,” former Apple CEO John Sculley recalled years later. “They believed the commercial insulted the very people we were trying to court as customers in corporate America.”
At one point, an Auschwitz survivor phoned Apple to accuse the company of using the Holocaust to sell personal computers. It was a bad look for all involved.
End of an era
1985 marked the last time Apple ran a commercial at the Super Bowl until 1999. It also signaled the beginning of the end for the relationship between Chiat/Day and Apple. It fizzled not long after, and the ad agency did not work with Apple again until the late 1990s after Steve Jobs returned to Cupertino.
History hasn’t helped the “Lemmings” ad, either. Macintosh Office didn’t turn out to be anywhere close to as significant as the Mac (not that it realistically ever could have been). Apple was courting a business audience, whose players were not enthusiastic about ditching IBM. More significantly, the Apple file server promised by the ad did not ship until 1987.
Worst Apple ad of all time?
Do you remember the “Lemmings” ad? What’s your pick for Apple’s worst advertisement of all time? Leave your comments below.