What’s the greatest Super Bowl ad of all time? There’s not much debate about that question. By overwhelming consensus, it’s 1984, the Apple Macintosh ad that stunned viewers, went viral when it was re-broadcast on television news, and put one of the world’s most important tech companies on the map,
Indeed, most advertising experts consider it the greatest single ad ever.
On the 30th anniversary of the ad that changed the world, I talked to Steve Hayden, the Chiat/Day advertising VP who wrote that spot.
Hayden, who recently retired as Chief Creative Officer of Ogilvy, explains that pulling off this elegant, impactful spot wasn’t as easy as it looked. In telling the behind-the-scenes story of the commercial, he notes that it could have been diminished or even derailed at any number of points along the road from concept to broadcast. Some of it was luck, but it also took the creative thinking that can still be a game-changer today.
In telling the story of 1984, Hayden shares a dozen lessons in practical creativity that helped make this landmark ad a reality.
Stop the world in its tracks.
“That was Steve Jobs’ six-word brief for the spot,” Hayden recalls. “He could be difficult at times, but he was a very inspirational leader.”
And the Apple founder didn’t place any limits on the Chiat/Day team. “He didn’t talk about specific media,” says Hayden. “He didn’t talk about Super Bowl commercials. Steve Jobs had never even heard about the Super Bowl.”
Jobs was only concerned about making an impact, and when Hayden’s team convinced him that a Super Bowl ad was the best way to do that, he went along.
Have Something To Sell
One of the reasons why 1984 was such a great ad is that the Macintosh was a great product. The Macintosh had a graphical user interface, and a mouse when DOS-based computers were using C: prompts and blue screens, and carried price tags that approached five figures. “This is the computer that will change everything,’” Jobs told Hayden. “’You can sit your grandmother in front of this computer and she’ll figure out how it works.” That was kind of a brazen statement in the days of command line prompts.
Tap Into the Times
Sometimes a message just taps into the tenor of the times. That’s exactly what happened with 1984. “It was a watershed year,” Hayden recalls. “Reagan was in the White House. There was an arms race and the Star Wars missile shield.”
There was a vague sense that things were going to change, but no consensus as to how, and a very specific concern about just how prophetic George Orwell’s novel might be.
Hayden, and his art director, Brent Thomas, who was especially well read and well versed on politics and foreign policy, immediately saw the Macintosh in political terms.
“It occurred to us that the advent of Xerography had a tremendous impact on closed societies like the Soviet Union. The Samiztat, the underground press where people were passing around manuscripts, all that was made possible by the Xerox machine.
Imagine what a computer that everyone could use would do? It’s going to change the world in ways we don’t know.
Don’t Ignore the Obvious
The brainstorming for the ad began with a shuffle pile—a collection of phrases, ideas, thoughts, and images meant to inspire. One of the lines in the Chiat/Day Apple shuffle pile came from a writer in San Francisco named Gary Gussick: Why 1984 Won’t Be Like 1984.
“Brent pulled out that line and thought ‘There’s got to be something we can do with that line.’”
Hadyen and Thomas’s initial fear was that it was such a strong, universal message, that another agency might beat them to it. “We were very concerned that the idea was so obvious that a company like AT&T could have done the same message,” Hayden recalls. “Thanks to our such and such, 1984 will be a better year than you thought in college.”
Don’t Say It, Show It
That iconic tag line was only the beginning of the story. Initially, Gussick had just paired it with a simple image of an Apple computer. It was effective, but it wasn’t going to stop the world in its tracks.
“We showed the idea to Lee Clow, and he said ‘It’s not enough to just say that. You have to shatter the image that’s in people’s minds.’” Clow came up with the concept of a young woman running onto the set and throwing a baseball bat at The Dictator haranguing people on the screen. “Shortly after that we met with Ridley Scott, who was in Los Angeles shooting Blade Runner,” Hayden recalls. “ And he took one look at the board and said ‘A baseball bat is far too American. If you gave her a sledgehammer to throw at the screen, it would be a more universal symbol.’ Scott pointed them toward Fritz Lang’s cinema classic Metropolis, and suddenly 1984 had its signature dystopian look.
Find a Visionary
Adding Scott to the team brought the production to a different level. “Ridley never called them commercials,” Hayden recalls. “He said ‘We’re making a film’ And it always looked filmic.”
Scott’s commitment to authenticity began with the production design. “They used a Vulcan nuclear bomber as set decoration,” says Hayden. And those downtrodden extras marching up and down? They were actual skinheads. They not only added a vibe to the shoot, they were much cheaper than conventional extras, working for $25 a day plus food and beer.
Scott’s input didn’t end with the shoot. While the plan was to score the commercial, the director’s version, with subtle touches like a train whistle, was so pitch perfect that the Chiat/Day team abandoned the idea of trying to improve upon it.
As for the visuals, they were even more spot on. “He did a 60-second director’s cut that was frame-for-frame what went on the air,” Hayden recalls.
Roll the Dice
Which doesn’t mean that it went off without a hitch. Because of Scott’s high standards, the production got behind schedule and over budget. “It became clear we wouldn’t have a 60-second version of 1984 if we didn’t have an extra day of shooting,” Hayden explains. “And the client absolutely refused to sign the estimate for an extra day of shooting.”
Which put Hayden in a bind. He had just been promoted to VP at Chiat/Day and said to the producer Richard O’Neill, “I’m now an officer of the company, and I guess I could sign the estimate.”
“You could,” O’Neill replied. “But if it doesn’t work out, you’re fired.”
Hayden signed off on the overage, and the rest, as they say is history.
Work the Politics
While it’s hard to imagine now, at the time, Hayden was getting wildly conflicting signals from different players within Apple. One faction was totally disinterested in the 1984 spot, and was focused entirely on a commercial for the company’s $10,000 Lisa business computer.
“One of the reasons why 1984 got made was because Ridley Scott was willing to do a package deal and shoot the Lisa commercial and the Macintosh commercial for the same low price, [around $600,000]” Hayden remembers.
Jay Chiat used to delight in showing clients the Lisa ad, boasting that this was the spot that was more important than 1984.
Do the Impossible
Jobs, on the other hand, understood exactly what they had. Which created its own set of problems.
“When he saw the rough cut of 1984, and realized it would stop the world in its tracks, he said when it runs this commercial will create an information vacuum. People will want to know what this computer is all about.” Jobs’ solution: To run a 20-page print insert in all the major business and news publications in the U.S.
Hayden recalls the reaction of Apple’s head of internal publication. “You could see the blood drain from his face. To buy the paper for a 20-page insert in the matter of a couple of weeks, much less getting it copywritten and doing the photography, was a near impossibility,” he recalls. “But it’s like working for Darth Vader: you succeed or you find it hard to breathe.” They succeeded.
Ride Out the Storm
But Steve Jobs’ enthusiasm wasn’t universal. The 1984 spot had gone over big at Apple’s sales meeting in Hawaii in October 1983.
Then it was time to show it to Apple’s board of directors. “Understand that Apple was only five or six years old,” Hayden explains. “They were still a start-up company, so to make them look respectable they had a conservative and somewhat older board of directors,” says Hayden.
And they didn’t like what they saw.
“When the lights went up most had their heads in their hands, looking at the conference table, shaking their heads,” says Hayden. “One of them finally looked up and said ‘Can I get a motion to fire the ad agency.’”
Find The Right Ally
Thus began a battle for the fate of 1984. Apple’s original plan was to buy two minutes of Super Bowl ad time. Run the 60 second 1984 once, followed by two 30-second “demo” spots explaining the benefits of the Macintosh. At Apple’s behest, Chiat/Day’s media department tried to sell off the ad time and managed to offload the two 30-second spots.
With a minute of ad time left, Apple had two options: Air the two demo spots. Or 1984.
“It came down to the close of business on Friday before the Super Bowl,” Hayden recalls.
The decision was, of course, to air 1984.
Who made the decision? Steve Jobs.
Take a Bow
Like Jobs, Steve Hayden isn’t much of a football fan, so he watched the spot alone at home. He was pleased with how the commercial looked and, especially how it sounded. But he missed seeing the audience reaction, the gobsmacked expressions as fans crammed into sports bars and Super Bowl parties fell into stunned silence as the hammer was hurled through the air.
“About 10 minutes after the spot aired, I was doing the dishes. And the phone rang. I’m up to my elbows in turkey grease. It’s Jay Chiat. He says, ‘How does it feel to be a f&$king star?’”
Allen St. John is the author of Newton’s Football: The Science Behind America’s Game, published this month by Ballantine Books.