Why “1984” Debuted in 1983

On January 22, 1984, more than 75 million people gathered in front of television sets around the world to watch what was, ultimately, not a very good football game. The Los Angeles Raiders dominated the Washington Redskins in Super Bowl XVIII, taking a 21-3 lead by halftime and turning it into a 38-9 drubbing when time expired. The game was so forgettable that Men’s Journal ranked it the fifth worst Super Bowl of all time — but in doing so, got both the Raiders’ home city and the Redskins’ final score wrong. 

But there’s one part of that game that is still spoken about today — an advertisement. During one of the commercial breaks in the 3rd quarter, CBS aired a commercial that you can watch here. The sixty-second spot is a parody and reference to George Orwell’s dystopian novel “1984,” with columns of people mindlessly listening as a Big Brother-esque face on a huge screen tells them what to think and how to be good citizens, and how a lockstep belief in one true ideology is the key to victory over an unnamed enemy. A runner, chased by authorities, races toward the screen and ultimately hurls a sledgehammer at the screen, shattering it. As the camera pans over the now-shocked audience, a voice and text on screen addresses those watching at home: “On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you’ll see why1984 won’t be like ‘1984.’”

The commercial is widely considered to be one of the greatest in advertising history, winning all sorts of awards both that year and in years since. But unless you were watching the Super Bowl that evening, you almost certainly did not see it on TV. The now-famous Apple ad made its official debut on the Super Bowl broadcast but Apple didn’t pay for any other placements afterward. So if you missed the game, you also missed advertising history.

Unless you were up really late on New Years’ Eve, 1983, and watching TV near the tiny city of Twin Falls, Idaho.

Twin Falls is a city of about 50,000 people. It’s a two-hour drive from the state capital of Boise, three hours from Salt Lake City, Utah, and six from Reno, Nevada, all of which is to say that it’s not in the most populated part of the United States. And in the early 1980s, even fewer people lived there; per the 1980 census, Twin Falls was home to only about 21,000 people. If you’re looking to get a lot of eyeballs on your really expensive advertisement announcing your groundbreaking new personal computer, airing the ad in Twin Falls, Idaho and nowhere else doesn’t make a lot of sense. But at a few minutes before midnight on December 31, 1983, that’s what Apple Computer did. Their advertising agency sent the 60-second commercial to KMVT in Twin Falls with explicit instructions: run the ad exactly once, in the final commercial break before the clock struck midnight, and then send the tape back to the advertising agency via express mail. 

The reason for airing the advertisement very late at night when no one was likely to see it? Well, Apple didn’t want anyone noticing the ad — it wanted to get the full impact of 75 million people seeing it all at once. But Apple also wanted to win advertising awards, and specifically, at the Clio Awards and the Cannes Lions, perhaps the highest honors in the advertising space. Apple and the advertising agency they used wanted to win 1984 — it wouldn’t make a lot of sense for a “1984”-themed ad to win in 1985, after all. But in 1984, the Clios and Cannes Lions honored the best advertisements released in 1983. The solution: air the advertisement in a small market, very late at night, and hope no one noticed. As Tom Frank, the Twin Falls TV station employee who ran the ad that night told Mental Floss, it probably worked: per Frank, because of the station’s “remote location and small nighttime audience,” it’s likely that few people saw TV history in the making.

Apple’s early release plan worked. Almost everyone believes that the commercial debuted at the Super Bowl and as noted above, the advertisement was incredibly well-received by consumers. The last-minute 1983 airing, despite reaching almost no one, made the advertisement eligible for the 1984 awards season. And yes, Apple took home the top prize at both the Clios and Cannes Lions that year. 

Bonus fact: While consumers and ad industry experts loved the ad, one notable party did not: George Orwell’s heirs. According to an article in the Dartmouth Law Review, Orwell’s estate saw the advertisement as infringing on its intellectual property rights and, in April of 1984, sent a cease and desist letter to Apple Computer insisting that the company not use the ad in the future. Apple never ran the ad again, as the law review article notes. (That said, Apple probably had no intention of re-running the ad again anyway.)

From the Archives: The Battle of the Bins: Why Apples had a trash can but Microsoft Windows used a recycling bin.