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40 Years Ago, This Ad Changed the Super Bowl Forever

Four decades ago, the Super Bowl became the Super Bowl.

It wasn’t because of anything that happened in the game itself: On Jan. 22, 1984, the Los Angeles Raiders defeated Washington 38-9 in Super Bowl XVIII, a contest that was mostly over before halftime. But during the broadcast on CBS, a 60-second commercial loosely inspired by a famous George Orwell novel shook up the advertising and the technology sectors without ever showing the product it promoted. Conceived by the Chiat/Day ad agency and directed by Ridley Scott, then fresh off making the seminal science-fiction noir “Blade Runner,” the Apple commercial “1984,” which was intended to introduce the new Macintosh computer, would become one of the most acclaimed commercials ever made. It also helped to kick off — pun partially intended — the Super Bowl tradition of the big game serving as an annual showcase for gilt-edged ads from Fortune 500 companies. It all began with the Apple co-founder Steve Jobs’s desire to take the battle with the company’s rivals to a splashy television broadcast he knew nothing about.

In recent interviews, several of the people involved in creating the “1984” spot — Scott; John Sculley, then chief executive of Apple; Steve Hayden, a writer of the ad for Chiat/Day; Fred Goldberg, the Apple account manager for Chiat/Day; and Anya Rajah, the actor who famously threw the sledgehammer — looked back on how the commercial came together, its inspiration and the internal objections that almost kept it from airing. These are edited excerpts from the conversations.

JOHN SCULLEY On Oct. 19, 1983, we’re all sitting around in Steve [Jobs’s] building, the Mac building, and the cover of Businessweek says, “The Winner is … IBM.” We were pretty deflated because this was the introduction of the IBM PCjr, and we hadn’t even introduced the Macintosh yet.

STEVE HAYDEN Jobs said, “I want something that will stop the world in its tracks.” Our media director, Hank Antosz, said, “Well, there’s only one place that can do that — the Super Bowl.” And Steve Jobs said, “What’s the Super Bowl?” [Antosz] said, “Well, it’s a huge football game that attracts one of the largest audiences of the year.” And [Jobs] said, “I’ve never seen a Super Bowl. I don’t think I know anybody who’s seen a Super Bowl.”

FRED GOLDBERG The original idea was actually done in 1982. We presented an ad [with] a headline, which was “Why 1984 Won’t Be Like ‘1984,’” to Steve Jobs, and he didn’t think the Apple III was worthy of that claim.

SCULLEY They said, “A lot of people might want to do something with George Orwell’s ‘1984.’’’ If we can take advantage of the fact that we’re introducing the Macintosh in January, maybe it can be so spectacular in our ads that no one else will even think about trying to copy us.

HAYDEN We started imagining, well, what did we think 1984 was going to be like, based on Orwell’s writing? And we thought it would be not so dissimilar from the world we were in at the time. Russia had invaded Afghanistan. It was impossible for the Russian people to get any kind of accurate information from their own news services about what was going on.

GOLDBERG It was Lee Clow, who was the creative director of Chiat/Day at that time, who oversaw the creation of the commercial that came out of that print concept.

HAYDEN Given the sunny good nature of the average person, wouldn’t this be a great tool to rebel against government overreach, especially in parts of the world where news is suppressed, manipulated or so tightly controlled it was useless to people?

RIDLEY SCOTT I said, “A computer for what reason? To write the shopping list? What’s the matter with a pencil and paper?” They laughed. How wrong I was. I should have bought stock then.

HAYDEN At the time, Ridley was dealing with a lot of these issues about the meaning of the future, and how technologies could be twisted for good or for evil, because he was working on “Blade Runner.”

SCOTT I was amazed that the agency was so brave to take a highbrow piece of literature to sell a box that they never talked about, never showed a picture, never said what it was for.

HAYDEN We had originally envisioned this as a comical situation of drone-like people being hectored by a loudspeaker, told where to go, what to do, what room the meeting was in, and so forth. [Scott] pulled out a beautiful book of the movie “Metropolis,” so his inspiration, combined with our original storyboard of people being controlled by forces beyond their understanding, really helped us refocus the idea into technology as a tool for freedom.

SCOTT I needed a man who is an extreme right-wing dictator. I want him on the screen doing his rant as an objector makes their way along the corridors of power being chased by the police.

ANYA RAJAH All we knew was that they wanted to see us throw discus. I used to be a javelin and discus thrower at school, so I went along. I was pretty good, and I obviously looked the part.

SCOTT I tend to, in my career, have very strong, powerful women. I looked for an athlete rather than a model.

RAJAH Ridley gave me an image of the hairstyle and color that he wanted on me, and sent me off to Vidal Sassoon in London to have it cut and colored. Even though I already had short blonde hair, he wanted it shorter and almost white-blonde. He was right — it was perfect for the part!

SCOTT Some people thought it was a million-dollar project. It wasn’t. I was very frugal. I tend to be on budget.

HAYDEN He found a junked Vulcan bomber and had parts of that mounted on the walls and all around.

GOLDBERG [The budget] was four commercials for $650,000. I figure that commercial was $350,000, maybe $400,000.

SCOTT I couldn’t afford the cast that I wanted, so I employed a whole bunch of National Front — extreme rightists who all had their heads shaved and tend not to have a job. I had 200 National Front in the studio. I think they were grateful for the work and had breakfast, lunch and dinner, and they got paid a bit.

GOLDBERG We paid them a total of $10,000 to sit there for three days having smoke blown in their face. They were really getting out of control at the end. The studio and the production house had security brought in. They had German shepherds to control these guys because they were throwing rocks at each other.

RAJAH I had to have a bodyguard because they were all real skinheads.

SCOTT I shot [the dictator] the day before on 16-millimeter, had it developed overnight, and then we projected it large on the screen, so it photographed badly, in a good way. I wanted it to look very deteriorated.

HAYDEN The dictator’s speech didn’t exist in the original script of the commercial. Ridley Scott called me and said, “It would be very useful if you could write 30 or 60 seconds’ worth of copy.” I went out with my brother, who was actually teaching in China as a law professor. Between the two of us, we came up with little snippets of quotes from Mussolini, from Mao, from the People’s Daily, from Goebbels, and from Hitler himself.

SCOTT Trying to explain to that lot what I was doing was quite difficult, so I said, “Just do as you’re told. There’s going to be a moment when this athlete flings a hammer at the screen. The screen will explode. I want you all to go ‘ahhhh.’” And they did.

RAJAH Throwing a real hammer was not going to be wise, so they ended up making a papier-mâché one, which I had to work with. It doesn’t look like papier-mâché, so it worked out OK.

GOLDBERG It was a terrific piece of film. Everybody at the agency loved it.

HAYDEN Steve Jobs was excited but frightened by it. Steve Wozniak offered to pay to run the commercial himself.

SCULLEY Before the commercial ran, we had to take it to the board of directors. The board sees the commercial, and then there’s just dead silence in the boardroom. They turn and look at me, and [a board member] says, “You’re not really going to run that thing, are you?”

HAYDEN As the closing credits scrolled up, the chairman, Mike Markkula, put his head in his hands and kind of folded over the conference table, and then slowly straightened up and [proposed hiring a different ad agency].

SCOTT I made it. I thought it was pretty good. But I was thinking, “Really? They’re going to run this on the Super Bowl? And we don’t know what it’s for?”

GOLDBERG I had them do a theater test. We get back the results, and it’s the worst business commercial that they’ve ever tested, in terms of persuasiveness.

SCULLEY The board said, “We don’t think you should run it. Try to sell the time.”

GOLDBERG And it was Jay Chiat who told us to drag our feet, basically, when we were told to sell off the time on the Super Bowl.

HAYDEN At long last, it came down that we would run the “1984” commercial once.

GOLDBERG Every news show had clips of it. The commercial kept running and running and running for days after that.

SCULLEY It ran for free, over and over again.

GOLDBERG The value of the offshoot publicity is what many advertisers see as the bigger benefit.

SCOTT I think the Super Bowl frenzy started there. Then, it was about $1 million a minute. Now, it’s about $7 million a minute. [The average cost for a Super Bowl ad this year is actually twice that: $7 million for a 30-second spot.]

SCULLEY When you’re doing something that’s never been done before, and it has a chance to change people’s lives in terms of how they work and play and communicate, doing something that seems outlandish is a pretty good idea — if you do it right.

HAYDEN The tools that were originally intended to help free you now are used as a way of enslaving you with conspiracy theories and unproved stories and unsourced news that’s not really news. We’re realizing Goebbels’s idea, getting people so confused they have no idea what to believe other than an authority figure. In that sense, we failed.

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