Steve Jobs, Apple, and myths about the best TV commercial ever

Like so much of history, Steve Jobs' and Apple’s TV commercial Photo: Steve Jobs

SAN DIEGO, October 7, 2011 – Apple founder Steve Jobs lived a remarkable life in his 56 years on Earth. A mere 60 seconds of that remarkable life was enough to change the nature of television commercials and the nature of advertising forever.

By mid-1983, Jobs and Apple CEO John Sculley had just put the finishing touches on their new product, the Macintosh personal computer. They were so excited about it that they wanted to do something special to launch it.

Working with the advertising agency Chiat/Day with copy by writer Steve Hayden, the vision of art director Brent Thomas and creative director Lee Clow, they created a commercial inspired by the themes of the George Orwell novel 1984 and the visual world depicted in the film Blade Runner, released the year before by director Ridley Scott.

Scott was hired to direct the commercial, and was given a budget of $900,000, the highest ever to date at the time. Scott himself was paid $600,000 to direct.

The team took a chance and bought airtime during the biggest stage the world had to offer at the time: the 1984 Super Bowl broadcast. On January 22, 1984, the commercial aired to an audience of 96 million early in the third quarter of Super Bowl XVIII, in which the Los Angeles Raiders defeated the Washington Redskins.

Jobs balances the new iMac

The rest is advertising and media history. The commercial went on to win the Grand Prize of Cannes, dozens of advertising industry awards and is considered the best television commercial ever made by scores of critics.

But like so much of history, Apple’s “1984” has become the stuff of half-truths and mistruths.

Most people believe the ad was never shown on television other than its Super Bowl airing. But the ad had aired before the Super Bowl and aired several times after, although never to a single national audience.

Jobs introduced the ad at Apple’s annual sales conference in Honolulu’s civic auditorium in October 1983. The 750 sales reps had a mixed reaction when they saw the piece. 

According to The Mac Bathroom Reader by Owen Linzmayer, Chiat/Day wanted the commercial to qualify for ad industry awards competitions, so it paid $10 to run the commercial once on Idaho Falls, Idaho television station KMVT. It ran before the station signed off on December 15, 1983 at 12:59 a.m.

The commercial also aired in a 30-second version in the ten largest television markets in the United States right before the Super Bowl. Copywriter Steve Hayden said in a recent interview that the commercial also ran in Boca Raton, Florida – the headquarters of IBM’s PC division.

“1984” ran in theaters for five days before the Super Bowl. One theater owner was reportedly so enthralled by it he ran it for a month after the advertising buy was over.

Jobs questioned Chiat/Day’s decision to buy time to air the ad on the Super Bowl. Copywriter Hayden reports that Jobs said, “I don’t know a single person who watches the Super Bowl.” He later took the agency’s advice and authorized it to go ahead.

The commercial might never have aired without the companies Hertz and Heinz. Chiat/Day originally bought two minutes of airtime on the Super Bowl with the idea it would run twice. In the end only 60 seconds for one airing was needed. But without reselling the extra time, there wouldn’t have been enough money to make the final payment on Apple’s Super Bowl time. At the last minute, Chiat/Day got Hertz and Heinz to each buy 30 seconds of the remaining minute the Friday before the Super Bowl.

The ad was not universally acclaimed from the beginning. Its toughest critics nearly killed it. According to Hayden in a 2004 interview, after the commercial was first played for the Apple board of directors in late 1983, the board members were holding their heads in their hands when the lights came up. Jobs thought they were overcome with emotion. Finally, board chairman Mike Markula said, “Can I get a motion to fire the ad agency?”

The Apple board initially refused to pay for the commercial. Jobs showed the commercial to retired Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak. He was impressed and told Jobs he thought the commercial was so good and so important to Apple’s future that he offered to write a personal check for half the cost of the commercial himself. Thankfully, the board left the decision to Jobs and Chiat/Day and Woz was off the hook.

The commercial itself was shot in Great Britain at Shepperton Studios in London. Director Ridley Scott couldn’t find enough actors willing to shave their heads to play the part of the punky-looking drones, so he paid real skinheads 125 pounds to appear in the ad.

Scott also struggled to find a woman to play the athlete in the commercial. It had been his idea to change the original plan to have the woman throw a hammer and use a sledgehammer instead. The problem was that the models and actresses who looked the part weren’t able to throw the heavier sledgehammer, an action central to the commercial. 

Anya Major swings the sledgehammer

Fortunately Scott found discus thrower and athlete Anya Major at a gym and cast her in the pivotal role mainly because she could spin without getting dizzy and heave the sledgehammer accurately. Rumors spread that Major died of breast cancer in 2000, but she is alive and well and lives in London.

The commercial was always intended to run again in its 30-second version. The reason it didn’t: Chiat/Day hadn’t bothered to check and see whether Orwell’s novel was still under copyright and get permission to use it. It was. According to an account in 2004 written by attorney William R. Coulson, of Gold & Coulson in Chicago, attorney Marvin Rosenbaum wrote the agency a “cease and desist” letter on behalf of the Orwell estate for violating its media rights after seeing the commercial on the Super Bowl, threatening to file a lawsuit if it aired again. He never heard back from anyone at Chiat/Day or Apple. The commercial never aired again, and Rosenbaum never sued.

Ridley Scott admitted in a 1996 interview with the website that he took the assignment because he liked the atmosphere of the project and the fact he didn’t have to show the product. He didn’t even know how to use a computer when he directed the commercial. “I got this commercial for Apple Macintosh, and frankly, I didn’t know what it was. I kind of liked the film and the atmosphere, and the fact that one had to show no product was also very attractive. So I basically made the movie, and at the end kind of discovered what it was we were selling later.”

Success has many mothers and fathers. Seconds after the commercial aired in the third quarter of what turned out to be a blowout Super Bowl game, switchboards at CBS, Chiat/Day, and Apple blew up with phone calls asking about the commercial. It got more headlines the next day than the game. Most local TV stations replayed it in its entirety.

More people saw it the next day than originally saw it on the Super Bowl. A.C. Nielson estimated the commercial reached 46.4 percent of the households in America, a full 50 percent of the nation’s men, and 36 percent of the women. Apple made up the entire cost of the ad in its first day of Macintosh sales.

The commercial almost single-handedly made the Super Bowl the place to make a statement to achieve overnight success, to launch the big new product, new movie, new car.

When Jobs originally told Sculley about his idea for the commercial, he’s reported by Hayden to have said, “I want to do something that will stop the world in its tracks. I want a thunderclap. I want to leave people with their mouths agape.”

There is no doubt about this comment being true. 


Gayle Lynn Falkenthal, APR, is President/Owner of the Falcon Valley Group in San Diego, California. Read more Media Migraine in the Communities at The Washington Times. Follow Gayle on Facebook and on Twitter @PRProSanDiego.

 Copyright © 2011 by Falcon Valley Group


This article is the copyrighted property of the writer and Communities @ Written permission must be obtained before reprint in online or print media. REPRINTING TWTC CONTENT WITHOUT PERMISSION AND/OR PAYMENT IS THEFT AND PUNISHABLE BY LAW.

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Gayle Falkenthal

Gayle Lynn Falkenthal, MS, APR, is President of the Falcon Valley Group, a San Diego based communications consulting firm. Falkenthal is a veteran award winning broadcast and print journalist, editor, producer, talk host and commentator. She is an instructor at National University in San Diego, and previously taught in the School of Journalism & Media Studies at San Diego State University.


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