Flashback Fridays: "1984" Super Bowl Ad
31 years ago, at the dawn of the computer age, Apple gave viewers one of the great, immortal Super Bowl ads that ironically captures not only the world as it was then, but how it is now. This Sunday will mark that annual American ritual of masculinity and unabashed consumerism. Like howling Roman crowds awash in cheap beer, viewers will not only root for their preferred team but be fed the latest offerings from the major corporations that direct our buying habits. Everything from new cars, gadgets and films will be announced in expensive, often hyper-sexualized ads.
For Super Bowl XVIII Apple and film director Ridley Scott gave viewers one minute of dystopian nightmare inspired by George Orwell's classic novel "1984." The purpose of the ad was to announce the release of Apple's then new Macintosh computer. It was a bold, visual statement by Apple that it would smash the then digital king of IBM.
In the ad dead-faced people in plain, almost concentration camp-style clothing march through tubed hallways as the imposing voice of "Big Brother" (David Graham of "Doctor Who") speaks about "a garden of pure ideology." The marchers make their way into a dark room where hypnotized faces watch Big Brother on a giant screen bark rhetorical propaganda. As Big Brother speaks an athletic woman in red shorts and white tank top ((British actress/athlete Anya Major) appears rushing in-between the audience with a hammer. She swings it and lets it fly at the screen. A thunderous crash breaks the screen as Big Brother says "we shall prevail." The viewers are left aghast, their stupefied mouths gaping open at the sight of their shattered god.
The ad was an immediate hit and garnered millions in free publicity when news broadcasts re-aired it the night it premiered. It was aired only once during the Super Bowl itself, which added to its cult allure. Visually it's a masterpiece with its rich lighting and detailed production design. At the time it broke records for the budget of an ad with a reported price tag of $900,000. It was directed by Ridley Scott who was already renowned for the films "Alien" and "Blade Runner," which imagined dark, science fiction futures full of threatening shadows.
Even more than Scott feature films such as "Gladiator," "1984" has aged impressively well. This is probably because its vision is startlingly relevant today, even if the times have changed. In 1984 the Cold War was still on, Ronald Reagan was president and very real fears of nuclear war dominated popular culture.
Orwell's vision of a future dominated by propaganda was contemporary and chilling. Reagan himself spoke to the masses like a slick, Hollywood-groomed Big Brother who tried to convince audiences from the TV screen that the Sandinistas in Nicaragua would soon invade Texas, that the USSR was plotting to take over the world. Movies like Nicolas Roeg's "Insignificance" imagined Marilyn Monroe and Albert Einstein being obliterated in a nuclear holocaust. A year before the "1984" ad premiered, Reagan pulled off the invasion of the tiny Caribbean island of Grenada by somehow spinning a coup among leftist factions on the island as an imminent threat to the United States. Big Brother was hard at work manipulating the masses as Apple prepared to give them new technologies that would soon consume their lives.
And that is the great irony of the "1984" Apple ad, it helped usher in a product that has helped us live in a purely digital world and even enhanced the power of Big Brother. Vast lines like the ones in the ad form outside of Apple stores everytime a new iPhone is released. Physical media is being swept away by the cyberworld even as the state now has more eyes and ears keeping track of us. Books are cast aside as we drool over the screen, as Presidents still convince us of phantom enemies and march us off to war (Bush with Iraq, Obama with ISIS, maybe soon Iran). The "1984" ad plays like a dream out of the mind of Edward Snowden as he sleeps exiled in Russia for exposing the NSA's vast, wandering eye.
The ad has even been used by politicians themselves. During the 2008 elections the Obama campaign famously appropriated the ad by replacing Big Brother with Hillary Clinton for a campaign commercial.
31 years later and the "1984" Super Bowl ad has withstood the test of time, even as newer, more expensive, but brainless ads become popular but soon fade. Like few advertisements, it plays like an insurgent that is selling something, and yet casts a different sort of spell because of its vision of a future that is so much the present.