Why Apple's 1984 Super Bowl Commercial Was So Controversial

Apple's 1984 Super Bowl ad is widely regarded as one of the most influential advertising campaigns ever. In the commercial, which stands out with its ominous blue-grey color tone, showed a bunch of bald folks fixated to a giant screen, as if entranced by the words of the man speaking to them via the feed. Enters a woman, being chased by authorities, who proceeds to throw a sledgehammer at the screen and shatters it with a blinding explosion.

Then we hear Apple's message: "On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce the Macintosh. And you'll see why 1984 won't be like 1984." "1984" is a reference to George Orwell's seminal sci-fi book of the same name, in which a totalitarian leader referred to as "Big Brother" instills fear in the inhabitants' minds that they're being constantly watched. In Apple's ad, that Big Brother-esque figure was IBM, then-leader of the personal computing market.

Notably, IBM was nicknamed as Big Blue in that era, so the analogy with Big Brother and the dominant gloomy blue color tone of the visuals was simply a jibe too delicious to ignore for Apple. However, the ad was deemed extremely controversial, and was vetoed by Apple's board, but eventually scored a spot at the Super Bowl that year and quickly became a phenomenon. Directed by Ridley Scott, the mind behind sci-fi masterpieces like "Alien" and "Blade Runner," the ad was famously beset with problems from the start. 

Apple set tongues wagging

The production company reportedly hired real skinheads for the ad shoot because that would cost less than hiring actors, but they reportedly created ruckus on the set. When the ad was first showed to a focus group, they disliked it, but Chiat/Day, the ad agency hired by Apple, never told about those early tests to the company (via Business Insider).

The ad reportedly cost half a million to produce, much higher than Apple's usual spend. Former Apple CEO John Sculley told Business Insider that when Steve Jobs saw the finished version, his exclaimed "Oh s–t. This is amazing." Co-founder Steve Wozniak reportedly loved it so much that he offered to pay half the cost of airing the ad the Super Bowl from his own wallet after Apple's board voted against the ad.

Interestingly, it ran because Chiat/Day could only return two of the three ad spots it purchased, meaning it had to fill the remaining 60-second slot with Apple's controversial ad. After it aired, the ad received widespread coverage, with Chiat/Day estimating that it gave Apple millions of dollars worth of free advertising due to media stations playing and discussing it back then.

Apple created a follow-up to promote the iPod. In 2020, however, Epic Games released a parody version in which the Big Brother figure looks like Apple. Titled Nineteen Eighty-Fortnite, and captioned Free Fortnite, the ad was released during the Apple vs Epic saga.