Last week marked the 30th anniversary of “1984,” the Orwellian commercial that introduced the Mac computer to the world. It was a new level of bombast not just for tech advertising, but the whole damn ad industry. And with a production cost of $900,000, it started the grand American tradition of spending staggering amounts of money on Super Bowl ads, a custom that will be carried on this Sunday by approximately 50 vastly inferior commercials.
The Ridley Scott-directed spot doesn’t seem like a huge deal when watched today, but those of us who saw it when it first aired during Super Bowl XVIII responded with a collective: “What the FUCK did I just see?” The internet wasn’t a thing yet, so you couldn’t replay it immediately, but we did see it again (and again) later, on news programs.
We didn’t see the little details everybody knows about now, like the line drawing of the Mac computer logo on the tank top of the hammer-throwing heroine (played by actress Anya Major, an experienced discus thrower). And we didn’t know all the weird facts about it, like how many of the bald minion extras were, ironically, London skinheads.
The ad market-tested terribly, but the Steves—Jobs and Wozniak—loved the spot, presumably because of its comparison between IBM and Big Brother. Apple’s board of directors, on the other hand, hated it and wanted to fire Chiat/Day, the ad agency responsible. Luckily Jobs’ reputation as a control freak was already true 30 years ago, and the commercial led to the sales of over $150 million worth of Macs by the end of April 1984. (It should be noted that the follow-up 1985 Super Bowl Mac ad, “Lemmings,” was a flop.)
Jump to 1997: Apple launched their inspiring (albeit grammatically incorrect) “Think Different” campaign. This was the advertising that put Apple on the path to becoming the tech leader it is today.
Two versions of the campaign’s anchor TV commercial, “The Crazy Ones,” were produced: one narrated by Steve Jobs (which never aired), and another by Richard Dreyfuss. The basic text of the commercials was stolen from Jack Kerouac’s writings. But that’s what good ad people do: “borrow” from other disciplines. The campaign ran for five years and included posters depicting a variety of "different thinkers" like Alfred Hitchcock, Amelia Earhart, and Nelson Mandela.
GET A MAC
Jump to 2006: The next noteworthy Apple campaign was the “Get a Mac” TV ads featuring Justin Long as a Mac and John Hodgman as a PC. Sixty-six commercials were produced in the three-plus year campaign. (Aside from the actors’ fees, they were almost comically cheap to make.)
While the ads were panned by some critics as mean-spirited and off-putting, the campaign was another success and increased sales dramatically. Love them or hate them, viewers looked forward to each new ad. That is the phenomenon a good Big Idea creates.
And that is the last Big Idea Apple has had.
"Your Verse" 2014
This is the latest Apple ad, “Your Verse,” for the iPad Air. Critics more reputable than me like it. I do not. It’s not a terrible ad (especially compared to last year’s commercials—see below), but it’s not a good one, either.
It’s one of Robin Williams’ speeches from Dead Poets Society. There are Walt Whitman quotes read over quick cuts of a bunch of people using an iPad in ways you and I never will. Here’s a funny but very true infographic that perfectly illustrates this commercial.
What it comes off as is an ad by Apple, for Apple. Plus, it’s wholly unoriginal.
Levi’s already did the epic Walt Whitman thing back in 2009, and it used Walt Whitman’s actual voice. You can bet that TBWA (Apple’s ad agency) was very aware of this industry-famous spot while shooting.
Besides being unoriginal and not having anything near a Big Idea, Apple appears caught between doing product ads and image ads, so they’re trying to do both with one ad, and that all adds up to bad ads, one right after another.
Speaking of which...
"Our Signature" 2013
There are so many perplexing copy lines in this God-awful, depressing 2013 spot, starting from the ominous opening, “This is it” (WHAT is it? And what is IT?). But this one: “every idea we touch enhances each life it touches” is a humdinger. Really, you hubristic fucking assholes? And the somber voiceover/music combo piped into elevators would sell a shit-ton of Effexor.
This was a companion ad to “Our Signature.” Astonishingly it is even more arrogant, confusing, depressing, and just plain awful. You’ll notice they double down on the go-fuck-yourself-consumer “every idea we touch enhances each life it touches” mantra. But also note some of the other copy lines:
• “…then we begin to craft around our intention…” What about, you know, your customers’ intentions?
• “…only then, do we sign our work.” Good for you, Francis fucking Bacon.
• Lastly, if you—or anybody—ever confuse “convenience” with “joy,” then you are a goddamn joyless automaton.
All cursing aside, these feel like ads made for Apple’s C-level muckamucks, not for you and me. Apple is currently a brand with no voice, no look, no Big Idea—just a bunch of one-off ads. If I had to sum them up in one word—a popular thing marketing consultants do when making those bullshit PowerPoint decks they charge big money for—it would be: UNCERTAINTY (like so, in Apple’s Myriad typeface).
Rumor has it Apple may be running an ad in this Sunday’s game, probably to somehow commemorate the “1984” ad (my guess). If they do I’d be willing to bet it will be nothing iconic or creative or even original.
I know you’re happy with your stock price, Mr. Tim Cook, but if I were you, I’d strongly consider taking a look at some other people’s advertising pitches. I’ve got some ideas, Tim, and I’ll go against that has-been hippie Lee Clow any fucking day of the week.