Today an ad aired and a myth was born.
The hot blonde jogger runs toward a giant screen on which some dictator babbles to an audience of automatons. She’s chased by cops in riot gear but manages to fling her hammer at the screen, smashing it. Apple’s 1984 ad aired the one and only time on TV today in 1984 during Super Bowl XVIII. Directed by Ridley Scott (he’d released Blade Runner two years prior) and consciously modeled on the ideas and imagery of George Orwell’s novel 1984. It is credited with having positioned Apple as the human alternative to mainframe computing, and its memorability qualifies it as one of the greatest television commercial masterpieces in history.
What really happened isn’t so mythically inspiring. Apple was in utter turmoil, with Steve Jobs’ four-year dedication to the Lisa computer giving shape to an internal battle between his followers (“pirates”) and staffers who wanted to support a lower-cost alternative called Macintosh (affectionately known as “corporate shirts”). Lisa was released in 1983 and flopped because there were few software titles written for its truly novel GUI. The Macintosh that followed after 1984 met a similar fate. Though initially popular, nobody had bothered to allow software writers to create tools for it, nor had the company put in place the manufacturing capacity to meet demand (forcing it to raise the price by almost $1,000 to limit sales). Steve Jobs would be forced out of the company less than a year later because of his leadership foibles and shortcomings. Apple would wander from misjudgment and product failure to the brink of dissolution for more than a decade.
So the 1984 ad promoted an incomplete product with a vague promise and no company ability to support it. Its idea and execution were indeed iconic but its closing line proved to be key to why it was a horrible ad: The spot ends with the words “You’ll see why 1984 won’t be like 1984.”
The mythology that has built up around the ad shows that Winston Smith wasn’t the only guy who could rewrite history.