‘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.

The “1984” spot nearly died when the client on the shoot refused to sign the estimate for a second day of shooting. O’Neill called me from London again, saying the spot was dead if we couldn’t get two full days of shooting. I had just been promoted to vp at Chiat/Day, therefore becoming an officer of the company. I asked O’Neill if he could proceed on my signature. He said, “Hey, you’re an officer—I can go ahead on your say so. But if it doesn’t work out, you’re fired.” I thought it was a risk well worth taking.
Ironically, the spot that the client was really interested in was a commercial for Lisa, the $10,000 Mac-like business computer that never really got off the ground. Ridley gave us a deal, agreeing to shoot both the Lisa spot and the Macintosh launch spot for a package price of about $600,000. Jay Chiat used to delight in showing the spot the clients cared most about—a nothing bit of braggadocio that dropped from public consciousness like a stone. Thank God.
When Jobs and Apple CEO John Sculley finally saw the rough cut of the spot, Jobs said, “This is going to cause an information vacuum. We’ve got to fill that vacuum with the real story.” So he ordered up a 20-page insert for Time and Newsweek, as well as a series of product spots highlighting what was different about the Mac from all the other green screen computers of the era.
I continued working on Apple until 1994, when it became clear that there wasn’t a single person left at the company who understood or appreciated the Apple brand. IBM was more interested in being Apple than Apple was, and I found a better audience in Armonk than I did in Cupertino.
When Jobs returned to Apple in 1996, he duplicated what we did in 1984 almost exactly. First, he got Clow and Chiat/Day back—people who understood the Apple brand better than anyone left at Apple. Ken Segall did the brilliant “Here’s to the Crazy Ones” spot for the ’96 Super Bowl, which remains one of my favorite spots. It reassured the faithful that good things were coming.
One of the many agency heads I’ve worked with over the years said, “When it’s great, there’s no debate.” I can’t imagine a more fatuous, false statement. There was plenty of debate around “1984.” It very nearly didn’t run.
The spot had a brush with death after Mike Murray and Jobs played the spot for the Apple board of directors in the fall of 1983. When the lights came up, Murray reported that most of the board members were holding their heads in their hands, shaking them ruefully. Finally, the chairman, Mike Markula, said, “Can I get a motion to fire the ad agency?”
They absolutely hated the spot to a man, and they were all men in those days, but left it to Jobs and Sculley whether to run it or not. Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak saw the spot and offered to pay half the cost of running it out of his personal checking account.
In any case, the order came down to sell off the time. We had bought two minutes in Super Bowl XVIII, and were either going to run “1984” twice or run it once with two product demo 30-seconds. I’ll never forget the Friday before the Big Game. The media group sold off one 30-second to Hertz and a second 30-second to Heinz. That left a single 60. When New York closed at five o’clock, we jumped for joy—the spot would air after all.

Ironically, Jobs had questioned the buy in the first place. He said, “I don’t know a single person who watches the Super Bowl.” Well, of course you don’t. You’re Steve Jobs.
Most of the agency team were at Super Bowl parties to witness the actual event. Since I’m not much of a sports fan, I was at home alone, washing dishes. Suddenly the phone rang. It was Jay Chiat himself. “How does it feel to be a fucking star?” he screamed.
I said, “Great. Just don’t ask me to do this next year.”
Steve Hayden is vice chairman and chief creative officer of Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide. In 1984, he was senior vice president and creative director at Chiat/Day.