Apple’s 1984 Advertisement

Mike Filardi

“1984” was an ad created by Apple for the 1983 Super Bowl, it was one of the first advertisements created specifically for the super bowl and set a trend for the big-budget and theatrical super bowl ads we see today. The denotative meaning of the ad is spelled out at the end, with the cryptic message that “1984 won’t be like ‘1984’.” This is meant to intrigue the audience and leave them with something to talk about once it’s over. The ad suggests to the viewer that the reason 1984 will be different is be because Apple’s Macintosh computer will somehow be revolutionary.

The ad suggests this with intertextual elements incorporated from George Orwell’s “1984.” This book and its adaptations depict a dystopian conformist society, in which individuality is persecuted, and thought police enforce a brutal totalitarian state. These aspects can be seen in the imagery, audio, and set design. The unnaturally blank faces and movements of every citizen suggest complete conformity and the monologue throughout reinforces this idea, the only character able to stand apart is the brightly dressed woman running from people who bear a strong resemblance to the thought police

The most blatant of all of these comparisons is George Orwell’s iconic Big Brother character, who is famously depicted as a face on a giant screen and often used as a shorthand reference to the kind of authoritarian dystopia that Apple is showing. References to Big Brother show up in all sorts of media, in an episode of the Simpsons (season 6, episode 6) for example, but in the case of this ad, it is more of a direct copy as it doesn’t get changed in any meaningful way from the original. Interestingly, the film producer of the movie “1984” thought that the ad “appeared to be a violation of federal copyright and trademark rights,” but no legal action took place beyond a cease and desist letter.

These elements would seem to suggest even deeper parallels with Apple, ones which could equate our own world to the one in “1984”. To look at the ad through the lens of semiotics, we see the advertisement as a symbol of Apple’s determination to enter the market and defeat its competitors with their new Macintosh computers. The runner, like Apple, burst into the room (the computer market) and liberates the people by confronting the Big Brother character (a popular interpretation of the ad is that Big Brother is actually Apples main competitor IBM). The ad negatively compares consumers who buy other brands of computers to mindless drones, without the energy and personality of the runner. This sets the stage for Apple to be the company for “young, innovative, entrepreneurial mind”, saving consumers from the fate of the drones by offering them a product of “freedom, not control.”

Apple gave this commercial a budget of $900,000, and while that may not be as much as is spent on today’s advertisements, it was unheard of at the time. Apple did this because its previous product, Lisa, was such a commercial failure (selling around 10,000 units of its first model) that the company needed to transform itself. Apple intended to create a corporate image that would attract a young demographic. They are speaking to an audience that values creative freedom and expression, one that is likely to identify with the central themes of the advertisement. These themes being fighting oppressive forces and having an individualistic identity, it does this by using imagery from “1984” and makes that force and identity vague to allow the audience to project their worldview onto it. This is what made Apples “1984” super bowl commercial a success, its message resonates with audiences and its presentation makes it a topic of continued discussion.

Sources

  1. Taube, Aaron. “How The Greatest Super Bowl Ad Ever – Apple’s ‘1984’ – Almost Didn’t Make It to Air.” Business Insider. Business Insider, 22 Jan. 2014. Web.
  2. Coulson, William R. “‘BIG BROTHER’ IS WATCHING APPLE: THE TRUTH ABOUT THE SUPER BOWL’S MOST FAMOUS AD” Dartmouth Law Journal, 22 June 2009. Web.
  3. “The Real Story Behind Apple’s Famous ‘1984’ Super Bowl Ad.” YouTube. YouTube, 03 Dec. 2014. Web.
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