In 1984, Apple changed the Super Bowl forever. The computer manufacturer enlivened a dismal game between the Los Angeles Raiders and Washington with a commercial that was unlike any Super Bowl commercial that had ever been aired. It was called “1984,” and it evoked George Orwell’s dystopian novel of the same name to announce the release of the Apple Macintosh computer: a machine that would ostensibly free computer hobbyists worldwide from the tyranny of the PC. Beautifully filmed, intelligently paced, and featuring an all-time great tag line—“On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like 1984.”—the ad was to Super Bowl commercials what Joe Montana was to Super Bowl quarterbacks: a brand new standard of excellence against which all new entrants would subsequently be measured.
Everyone says that “1984” is the best Super Bowl commercial of all time, and, just this once, everyone is right. “1984” wasn’t just entertaining and beautiful, with great pacing and actual production values—it was important. Before “1984,” nobody ever claimed that they watched the Super Bowl for the commercials—or, if they did, they probably worked in one of the ad agencies that produced them. Super Bowl commercials pre-“1984” were almost all chintzy, insincere irritants that could neither be trusted nor enjoyed. Look at some of the other commercials that aired that year to get a sense of the extent to which Apple outclassed its competition.
Chevrolet ran several ads during Super Bowl XVIII centered around its slogan “Chevrolet: Taking Charge.” Compared with “1984” they look like they were produced by high school students in a remedial telecom class. Take this cringe-worthy commercial for the Chevy Cavalier station wagon, titled “Hot”:
The problem here is that no matter how many times the commercial referred to the Cavalier as hot, any rational person could see that it was not. Or take this commercial, titled “Mars,” which also deployed science-fiction imagery, to much lamer effect:
I’m trying to imagine the initial meeting between Chevrolet and the ad agency: “We want something that sort of feels like a cross between Tron and Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. Your budget is $3.” This was what commercials were like in 1984: cheap and unconvincing. Apple wasn’t the only tech company debuting a new computer that year, and it wasn’t the only tech company to invoke the future in its sales pitch. But notice the vast disparity between Apple’s commercial and Tandy’s ad for its TRS-80 Model 2000 Personal Computer. “It’s the dawn of a new era,” insists “Incredible Hulk” actor Bill Bixby at the beginning of a commercial that compared with “1984” already looks like it’s 20 years out of date:
Before “1984,” Super Bowl commercials were almost all explicit sales pitches. “1984” showed advertisers that an evocative approach could be much more effective, that consumers would notice the care that went into the making of the commercial and subconsciously assume that similar care went into the making of the computer.
Given that Apple is famously known for its focus on presentation and production values, it’s no surprise that the company is responsible for the best Super Bowl commercial of all time. But it is a surprise that Apple is also responsible for the worst. During the 1999 Super Bowl, 15 years after “1984” aired, Apple produced another dystopian-inflected commercial, this time to laughable effect.
The 1999 spot, titled “HAL 9000–Y2K Bug,” cast the murderous computer from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey to try to frighten consumers into buying a Macintosh. The core of the ad was a series of laughably inaccurate predictions about the Y2K bug—which, according to the commercial, would bring humanity to its knees in the year 2000, otherwise known as the year “when computers began to misbehave”:
The “Y2K” commercial is everything that “1984” was not. It’s smug and preachy and creepy and illogical. It plays on people’s fears rather than appealing to their dreams. The commercial strongly implies that HAL 9000 plans to murder “Dave” for being an Apple fanboy, which sort of makes HAL 9000 a contender for worst pitchman in advertising history. Whereas “1984” cast Apple as a liberating force, “Y2K” just makes the company seem menacing, the publicly traded equivalent of an old crone in a horror movie waving her index finger and yelling “Doom! DOOOM!” Worst of all, the commercial was completely wrong! The Y2K bug didn’t set off a global economic disruption! The “think different” graphic at the very end just kills me. “Hey, instead of running a good Super Bowl commercial this year, let’s think different and run one that’s super alienating and ineffective!”
There have been plenty of other terrible Super Bowl commercials, of course: nonsensical ones, confusing ones, sexist ones, shrill ones. But “Y2K” is worse than all of those precisely because Apple should have known better. We can laugh at the terrible dot-com ads, cringe at the lame beer commercials, and so on, but we never really expected great work from those advertisers anyway. But Apple! Apple set the standard. The company responsible for the best Super Bowl commercial of all time has absolutely no excuse for also commissioning one as bad as “Y2K.” It can only be attributable to human error.
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