Super Bowl ads are always special, but this was in a league of its own. Directed by Blade Runner's Ridley Scott and filmed in Shepperton Studios, its production budget stood somewhere between $350,000 and $900,000, depending on who is telling the story.
The premise was simple enough, but the message was a gamble, pitting Apple directly against its biggest competitor, IBM.
International Business Machines dominated the workplace of the early 1980s, and the saying that 'nobody ever got fired for buying IBM' was a powerful monicker working in its favour. People trusted the brand, staking their careers on the simple choice of IBM or one of the others. As a result, the others often missed out, and if Apple wasn't going to languish among them, it had to change that perception.
So the ad portrayed Apple as humanity's only hope for the future. It dressed Anya Major, an athlete who later appeared in Elton John's Nikita video, in a white singlet and red shorts, with a picture of the Mac on her vest. She was bright, fresh and youthful, and a stark contrast to the cold, blue, shaven-headed drones all about her. They plodded while she ran. They were brainwashed by Big Brother, who lectured them through an enormous screen, but she hurled a hammer through the screen to free them from their penury.
Even without the tagline, the inference would have been clear, but Jobs, Apple CEO John Sculley and Chiat\Day turned the knife the with the memorable slogan, 'On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you'll see why 1984 won't be like Nineteen Eighty-Four.'
It was a gutsy move, never explicitly naming IBM, and never showing the product it was promoting, but today it's considered a masterpiece, and has topped Advertising Age's list of the 50 greatest commercials ever made.
Jobs and Sculley loved it, but when Jobs played it to the board, it got a frosty reception. The board disliked it and Sculley changed his mind, suggesting that they find another agency, but not before asking Chiat\Day to sell off the two ad slots they'd already booked it into.
One of these was a minor booking, slated to run on just ten local stations in Idaho, purely so the ad would qualify for the 1983 advertising awards. Chiat\Day offloaded this as instructed, but hung on to the Super Bowl break and claimed that it was unsellable.
As Jobs' biographer, Walter Isaacson, explains, 'Sculley, perhaps to avoid a showdown with either the board or Jobs, decided to let Bill Campbell, the head of marketing, figure out what to do. Campbell, a former football coach, decided to throw the long bomb. "I think we ought to go for it," he told his team.'
Sign up for Computerworld eNewsletters.