Steve Jobs presents the “1984” ad at the Macintosh pre-launch event (1983)


During Apple’s Annual Sales Conference in October1983, Steve Jobs unveiled the famous “1984” commercial. Three months later the ad would air during the third quarter of Superbowl XVIII… and the rest is history!

If you want to know the amazing story behind the ad, continure reading. 

The story behind the “1984” commercial

Apple Confidential 2.0Note: The following story is made available courtesy from Owen W. Linzmayer‘s book, Apple Confidential 2.0. Owen was gentle enough to allow me to copy/paste verbatim a whole section of his Apple Confidential 2.0 book. BTW, it’s a good read for any Apple fan :)

Every true Macintosh fanatic has seen, or at least heard about, the famous 1984 television commercial that heralded the introduction of the Macintosh. The spot, with its distinctive Orwellian vision, is indelibly imprinted in the minds of Mac users the world over. Now, for the first time, the whole truth can be told. What you don’t know about the commercial will surprise you, what you think you know is probably wrong.

The creative of “1984”

1984 novelFirst of all, the commercial was not inspired by the Macintosh. In late 1982, Apple’s advertising agency, Chiat/Day, had devised a corporate print campaign for The Wall Street Journal featuring the Apple II that was designed to play off George Orwell‘s totalitarian vision of the future.

“Six months before we knew about Mac, we had this new ad that read, “Why 1984 won’t be like 1984,” reveals Lee Clow, creative director at Chiat/Day. “It explained Apple’s philosophy and purpose; that people, not just government and big corporations, should run technology. If computers aren’t to take over our lives, they have to be accessible.”

The ad never ran and was filed away, only to be dusted off in the spring of 1983 by Steve Hayden, the agency’s copywriter, and Brent Thomas, the art director, who were looking for some hook to make a bold statement about the incredible new Macintosh. With considerable reworking, the Chiat/Day team put together a storyboard of the 1984 commercial they proposed to shoot.

1984 commercial runnerThe mini-movie would show an athletic young woman, chased by helmeted storm troopers, burst into a dank auditorium in which rows upon rows of slack-jawed, drone-like workers watched an image of Big Brother spouting an ideological diatribe on a huge screen. The heroine, wearing bright red jogging shorts and a white Macintosh tee-shirt, would smash the screen with a baseball bat (later changed to a sledgehammer for dramatic effect) and a refreshing burst of fresh air would pass over the masses as they literally “saw the light.” In the closing shot, a solemn voice would intone “On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like 1984.”

The Production of “1984”

After Chiat/Day advertising presented the storyboard to Apple, John Sculley was apprehensive, but Steve Jobs insisted that the Mac deserved such a radical spot. [Note: Watch a clip of John Sculley telling his version of the story - it starts at 48:34]. They gave the authorization to shoot the commercial and purchase time to air it during the upcoming Super Bowl XVIIl.

On the strength of his successful science-fiction films Alien and Blade Runner, Chiat/Day gave Ridley Scott a budget of $900,000 to direct the 1984 spot.

In September, Scott assembled a cast of 200 for a week of filming at London’s Shepperton Studios. To play the part of the despondent, baldheaded workers, Scott recruited authentic British skinheads and paid amateurs $125 a day to shave off their hair. Casting the heroine proved trickier.

Apple 1984 commercial Behind the scenesMany of the professional fashion models and actresses had difficulty spinning in place and then accurately throwing the sledgehammer as called for in the script. In fact, one errant sledgehammer toss almost killed an old lady walking down a path in Hyde Park where the casting call was being held.

Anya Major as Nikita in Elton John's classic 1985 video clip.
Anya Major as Nikita in Elton John’s classic video clip of the same name.

As luck would have it, one model, Anya Major, was also an experienced discus thrower and was hired to play the female lead because she looked the part and didn’t get dizzy when spinning around preparing to hurl the hammer.

When the rough cut was assembled, Chiat/Day proudly presented it to Jobs and Sculley. Jobs loved the commercial and Sculley thought it was crazy enough that it just might work. In October, the commercial was aired publicly for the first time at Apple’s annual sales conference in Honolulu’s civic auditorium. The 750 sales reps went wild when they saw the piece.

Watch the Making of the 1984 ad

The setback

Jobs and Sculley clearly thought they had a winner on their hands, so in late December, they asked marketing manager Mike Murray to screen the commercial for the other members of Apple’s board of directors: A. C. “Mike” Markkula Jr. (Apple founder), Dr. Henry E. Singleton (Teledyne founder), Arthur Rock (venture capitalist), Peter O. Crisp (managing partner in Rockefeller’s Venrock Associates), and Philip S. Schlein (CEO of Macy’s California).


When the lights came back up after the spot played, the room on De Anza Boulevard was silent. Schlein was sitting with his head on the table. Markkula stared in amazement. Murray thought Markkula was overcome by the wonderful commercial until he broke the silence to ask, “Who wants to move to find a new agency?” Sculley recalls, “The others just looked at each other, dazed expressions on their faces…Most of them felt it was the worst commercial they had ever seen. Not a single outside board member liked it.”

The board hadn’t demanded the commercial be killed, nonetheless Sculley asked Chiat/Day to sell back the one and one half minutes of Super Bowl television time that they had purchased. The original plan was to play the full-length, 60-second 1984 spot to catch everyone’s attention, then hammer home the message during a subsequent commercial break with an additional airing of an edited 30-second version.

Watch the 30-second version of the “1984” ad


Defying Sculley’s request, Jay Chiat told his media director, Camille Johnson, “Just sell off the thirty.” Johnson laughed, thinking it would be impossible to sell any of the time at so late a date, but miraculously, she managed to find a buyer for the 30-second slot. That still left Apple with a 60-second slot for which it had paid $800,000.

Perhaps seeking to cover himself in the event the commercial flopped, Sculley left the decision of whether to run 1984 up to William V. Campbell (VP of marketing) and E. Floyd Kvamme (executive VP of marketing and sales). If they couldn’t sell the Super Bowl minute and decided against airing 1984, the backup plan was to run Manuals, a rather straightforward product-benefit spot which challenged viewers to decide which was the more sophisticated computer: the IBM PC, with its huge pile of documentation that came crashing down beside the computer, or the Macintosh, with its light-as-a-feather user’s guide floating to rest next to the mouse.

Watch the Macintosh “Manual” ad

Woz’s Wonderful Reaction

Still pushing for 1984, Jobs sought the support of Steve Wozniak, who normally didn’t like to get involved in such political issues. Recalls Wozniak, “One evening I was over at the Macintosh group, which I was about to join, and Steve grabbed me and said ‘Hey, come over here and look at this.’ He pulled up a 3/4-inch VCR and played the ad. I was astounded. I thought it was the most incredible thing.

Then he told me that the board decided not to show it. He didn’t say why. I was so shocked. Steve said we were going to run it during the Super Bowl. I asked how much it was going to cost, and he told me $800,000. I said, ‘Well, I’ll pay half of it if you will.’ I figured it was a problem with the company justifying the expenditure. I thought an ad that was so great a piece of science fiction should have its chance to be seen.”

Campbell and Kvamme threw caution to the wind and decided to run the 1984 commercial after all, kicking off a $15-million, 100-day advertising blitz for the Mac. Fortunately for Wozniak, Jobs didn’t take him up on his offer to pony up half the cost. On January 22, 1984, the controversial 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 38 to 9 in Tampa Stadium. [Watch the full Superbowl XVIII broadcast. The 1984 ad is at 2:49:47]

“1984” after effects

Any apprehension Apple may have harbored regarding 1984 disappeared seconds after the spot ran. Switchboards immediately lit up at CBS, Chiat/Day, and Apple with calls demanding to know, “What was that?” Love it or hate it, the commercial demanded attention and sparked widespread controversy. It would ultimately garner an estimated $5 million in free publicity; all three television networks and nearly 50 local stations aired news stories about the spot, most replaying it in its entirety, and hundreds of newspapers and magazines wrote about the phenomenon.

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. The commercial recorded astronomical recall scores and went on to win the Grand Prize of Cannes as well as over 30 other advertising industry awards.

The 1984 commercial was the first example of what Sculley called “event marketing,” the goal of which is to create a promotion so groundbreaking that it deserves as much coverage as the product itself. Apple fed the media frenzy surrounding 1984 by announcing that the commercial would never be aired again.

To this day, if you ask most Apple employees about the commercial, they will proudly claim that the only time Apple ever paid to run the commercial was during the Super Bowl. It’s been repeated convincingly so many times by so many sincere people that it’s now accepted as gospel. Hate to break it to you, but it’s a lie.

In keeping with industry tradition, Chiat/Day paid $10 to run 1984 in the 1:00 A.M. sign-off slot on December 15, 1983, at a small television station (KMVT, Channel 11) in Twin Falls, Idaho, thereby ensuring that the commercial would qualify for that year’s advertising awards. And beginning on January 17, the 30-second version of the commercial aired for weeks in ScreenVision, an advertising medium played in movie theaters before previews and feature presentations (some theater owners loved the commercial so much that they continued running it for months without pay).

At the same time, a five-day teaser campaign began running a full schedule during prime time in America’s ten largest television markets (encompassing 30 percent of the nation’s viewers), plus the relatively unimportant television market of West Palm Beach, Florida, right next door to IBM’s PC headquarters. “I would love to know what they’re saying in Boca Raton,” mused Jobs the day after the Super Bowl.

iBM PCjr adIronically, it was during the same game that IBM launched the ad campaign for its ill-fated, low-cost PCjr computer which had just begun shipping to dealers. The lighthearted commercial depicted Charlie Chaplin wheeling the PCjr into a room in a baby carriage as the announcer introduced “the bright little addition to the family.” Jobs would later remark, “I expected the computer to wet all over the television set.” Reflecting on IBM’s use of Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times character, Jean-Louis Gassée found it “surprising that the Little Tramp, symbolizing the worst aspects of the assembly line, was chosen to advertise a company that is a humanistic one in every other way.”

Big Brother Speaks

Apple 1984 Big BrotherAs 1984 was originally conceived, Big Brother did not have a speaking role, but director Ridley Scott wanted to give him some lines. Copywriter Steve Hayden objected at first, but agreed to put something together when Scott threatened to write the lines himself. Apple vehemently denied that the propaganda-spouting Big Brother character in its 1984 commercial represented its $40-billion competitor, IBM. Decide for yourself as you read Big Brother’s harangue from the full-length, 60-second commercial:

 “My friends, each of you is a single cell in the great body of the State. And today, that great body has purged itself of parasites. We have triumphed over the unprincipled dissemination of facts. The thugs and wreckers have been cast out. And the poisonous weeds of disinformation have been consigned to the dustbin of history.

Let each and every cell rejoice! For today we celebrate the first, glorious anniversary of the Information Purification Directive!

We have created, for the first time in all history, a garden of pure ideology, where each worker may bloom secure from the pests of contradictory and confusing truths. Our Unification of Thought is a more powerful weapon than any fleet or army on Earth!

We are one people. With one will. One resolve. One cause. Our enemies shall talk themselves to death. And we will bury them with their own confusion! We shall prevail!”

Event Marketing Redux: Apple spent more than $2.5 million to buy all 40 pages of advertising in a special 1984 election issue of Newsweek magazine. At the time, John Sculley remarked, “It’s unclear whether Apple has an advertising insert in Newsweek or whether Newsweek has an insert in an Apple brochure.”

End of Story. Courtesy of Owen W. Linzmayer from his book Apple Confidential 2.0.

Other great links about 1984

Hope you enjoyed that story. I had a blast doing the research!

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