‘1984’: As Good as It Gets

I was privileged to work on what’s been called the best TV commercial ever, Apple Computer’s “1984,” which launched the Macintosh personal computer. It ran only once on the Super Bowl (in 1984, of course), but established that venue as the platform for big, new branding campaigns from all sorts of advertisers—beer, cars, soft drinks, dot-coms, you name it.

The brief for “1984” was simple: Steve Jobs said, “I want to stop the world in its tracks.”

But some myth busting is in order. The myth is that “1984” only ran once anywhere and then earned an additional $150 million in media value being replayed as the subject of commentary on ABC, CBS, NBC, BBC and CBC. But the truth is, we ran a 30-second version of “1984” in the top 10 U.S. markets, plus, in an admittedly childish move, in an 11th market—Boca Raton, Fla., headquarters for IBM’s PC division. That only the Super Bowl version is remembered gives you an idea of the importance of the right media buy—and the power of a 60- vs. 30-second spot.

“1984” also ran in theaters through ScreenVision. One theater owner was so enamored with it, he ran it for a month after the buy was over.

When Jobs introduced the spot at Apple’s annual sales meeting in Hawaii in October 1983, he cast IBM in the role of Big Brother. That was never our intention. The real villain was our collective fear of technology, not a corporation either real or imagined.

“Why 1984 won’t be like 1984” was a headline penned by copywriter Gary Gussick. Brent Thomas and I found it in a pile of layouts from Chiat/Day, San Francisco, and thought we could make a spot out of it.

The first version of the spot was more Jetsons than Metropolis. The intention was to remove people’s fears of technology at a time when owning your own computer made about as much sense as owning your own cruise missile. We wanted to democratize technology, telling people that the power was now literally in their hands.

If you can remember back that far, the Cold War was still pretty hot. Reagan was in the White House, and the Soviet Union was the Evil Empire. We knew that if fax machines could bring down dictatorships, personal computers could do infinitely more. The Big Brother of the spot wasn’t IBM—it was any government dedicated to keeping its populace in the dark. We knew that computers and communications could change all that.

Director Ridley Scott had everything to do with making “1984” great. Lee Clow had suggested that the heroine who runs in and smashes the screen with Big Brother haranguing the masses should carry a baseball bat. But Ridley insisted that a far better symbol would be a hammer. He was right, of course, and, as a result, the spot actually foreshadowed the fall of the Iron Curtain.

In the original board, there was no voiceover. But, Richard O’Neill, the agency’s executive producer, called me from London where they were casting and asked if I could bang out something for Big Brother to say for casting purposes. I had lunch that day with my brother, David, who is an international lawyer and Sinophile. We kicked around phrases from Mussolini to Mao, and by the time I got back to work, Big Brother’s speech just wrote itself. Ridley liked it so much that it wound up in the finished spot. It did hold everything together.

Because I’m a writer and “1984” had no dialogue, I actually didn’t go on the shoot. Instead, I covered a shoot with director Adrian Lyne in Los Angeles that did have dialogue.