We should be more like 1984

Amsterdam Ad Blog, 18 September 2013

I finally got a chance to read Steve Jobs’ biography by Walter Isaacson – what a great read! I especially enjoyed the insights it revealed about Apple’s advertising. One of the most famous Apple ads ever (conceived by Chiat/Day and Lee Clow’s team) was 1984. The commercial, once described by Advertising Age as the best in the history of advertising, launched the Macintosh with a big bang. When I learned how it came into existence, I discovered that its creative process reveals 4 important advertising rules.

What made the Macintosh special is that it changed the world of computers. With its mouse and graphical interface it was the first computer that allowed intuitive navigation for non-geeks. This made it a thankful task for Chiat/Day to introduce it. After all, it’s always easier to sell a product with unique features than a product that sucks. Inversely: when a product is useless, don’t advertise it, improve it.

Rule #1: Don’t use advertising to fix a shitty product

In this context the most insightful Apple ad ever was this one making fun of Windows Vista.

Speaking of insightful, even if your product is distinctive, like the Macintosh, you still need an insight as a starting point for your advertising. Insights are essential, because they inspire the ad creatives and help your product resonate among your target group. 1984 had a strong one; IBM dominated the computer market and computers were seen as the extended arm of Big Brother – which today has become reality, for that matter – rather than a creative tool. This insight paved the way for using George Orwell’s 1984 as a metaphor. Which was not just spot on because of the insight, but also because the ad would be aired in 1984 – “Why 1984 won’t be like1984” said the copy.

Rule #2: Always build your advertising on an insight

So, thanks to the smart product and briefing, the commercial became a huge success. After it had premiered during the famous Superbowl commercial break, it became the water cooler topic for weeks, thus creating a buzz that even in today’s social media era would have been impressive.

Though in hindsight 1984’s success only makes sense, when Jobs presented it to his board the reactions were unanimously negative. Mike Markkula – CEO at the time – wanted to look for a new agency and most of the board thought it was the worst commercial they had ever seen. Focus groups turned it down as well – here you can see the reactions on the animated storyboard of some of the respondents; hilarious. Through marketing glasses it would have been an absolute no go. But Jobs wasn’t a marketer – he saw himself as an artist – so Apple eventually decided to go through with it. The lesson: it’s difficult to assess the potential success of a creative concept through marketing glasses, because creativity is per definition unpredictable; it produces stuff that you’ve never seen before.

Rule #3: If you want predictable, don’t hire a creative agency

But even a flashy product, strong insight, and idea with potential aren’t enough to shake up a market. The execution of the 1984 commercial was crucial for its success. Apple allocated a budget of $750,000 just to film it – and we’re talking almost 30 years ago! Chiat/Day hired director Ridley Scott, who had just made Blade Runner, and could thus convincingly evoke a dystopian look and feel. Among other details, Scott used a cold industrial setting and dozens of real skinheads in the spot to do so. The reason why the ad felt so convincing was because the execution seamlessly aligned with the concept. The lesson: if you don’t have the budget to properly execute an idea, don’t – you’re wasting your money.

Rule #4: An idea is as good as its execution

And if you think all of these rules are truisms; I agree. But how come that all of them are systematically ignored by both advertisers and agencies? Maybe we all should try to be a little more like 1984.

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Also by Wouter Boon