Today in Apple history: Super Bowl Mac ad airs against the odds

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1984
Apple's greatest commercial in history.
Photo: Apple

January 22: Today in Apple history: Super Bowl Mac ad airs against the odds January 22, 1984: Apple’s “1984” commercial for the Macintosh 128K airs on CBS during the third quarter of the Super Bowl.

Probably the most famous TV ad for a computer in history, the commercial is directed by Alien and Blade Runner director Ridley Scott. It very nearly didn’t air, though.

Will it air? Won’t it air? Nobody seemed sure

Just like many Apple ads over the years, the “1984” ad didn’t waste time running through the specs of Apple’s new computer. Instead, it articulated a philosophy. Apple was the young, “different thinking” upstart pitted against established giant IBM, which had by now entered the personal computer business.

The ad depicted a dreary future in which workers sit listening to a Big Brother-like figure as he drones on about the glories of groupthink. A dissident woman, dressed in bright red shorts, takes a hammer to the authoritarian on the massive screen.

Because it was so different from most computer ads of the time, however, the “1984” spot proved controversial. Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, Apple’s co-founders, loved it. Then-CEO John Sculley wasn’t so sure, although he liked its unquestionable boldness.

The Apple board of directors remained less than convinced, though. “Can I get a motion to fire the ad agency?” Mike Markkula reportedly said. Another board member, Philip S. Schlein, the CEO of Macy’s California, supposedly said nothing, but buried his head in his hands.

The panicked board hatched a plan to sell off Apple’s Super Bowl ad slots at the last minute. On the Friday before the big game, Hertz said it would buy one 30-second block, while Heinz said it would buy another. This left Apple with one minute of paid air time, costing $800,000. With no last-minute purchasers, Cupertino decided to air the commercial after all.

The Apple ad that won the Super Bowl

Ironically, considering how big a platform the Super Bowl was (that year it was viewed by 77.62 million people), the Mac team may not have realized quite how important this move was.

Jobs said he didn’t know a single person who watched the Super Bowl. Bill Atkinson, a crucial member of the Mac team, wasn’t a sports fan. He skipped the game altogether, waiting until Monday to find out how everything went. Other members tuned in, but just to watch Apple’s ad.

Even Steve Hayden, the writer of the commercial, missed its airing. With no interest in American football, he was at home alone washing dishes when the phone rang following the groundbreaking screening.

It was Jay Chiat, founder of the agency that created the “1984” ad.

“How does it feel to be a fucking star?” Chiat screamed down the line. “Great,” said Hayden, still baffled at the turnaround from love-to-hatred-and-back-to-love-again that the ad received. “Just don’t ask me to do this next year.”

“1984” is Apple’s greatest ad ever

In the years since, many companies and TV shows have parodied or paid homage to the watershed Apple ad. In 2004, with the “1984” commercial celebrating its 20th anniversary, Apple released an updated version, in which the heroine wore an iPod on her belt.

As great as some of Apple’s other ads have been, this remains its crowning achievement for advertising. It set the Macintosh, which went on sale soon after, on the path to success.