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The True Story of Apple's "1984" Ad's First Broadcast...Before the Super Bowl

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Setting the Record Straight

Last Monday I ran a story on how Apple's "1984" Super Bowl ad was almost canceled. If you haven't read the article, take a look; it concerns one of the most famous Super Bowl commercials of all time.

Among other things, I mentioned that Apple's "1984" ad actually ran once before it "premiered" on 1984's Super Bowl -- it ran late at night in December 1983. But I got my facts wrong on the specific date and time of that first airing: I was two weeks off. I was working from two published sources which both had the date wrong. Amazingly, Tom Frank, the man who ran the ad in December 1983, wrote in to set the record straight. He commented:

I was the operator who aired it, and it was the last possible break before midnight on Saturday Dec. 31st 1983. I was under explicit orders to make sure it aired and aired correctly. It was the 60 sec version. After airing, the 2" videotape was expressed back to the agency.

I emailed Frank to request an interview, and here you have it: the never-before-published story of the first time Apple's "1984" Super Bowl ad aired...weeks before the Super Bowl. Frank also aired Apple's (very poorly received) "Lemmings" ad the year after, on a similar schedule to qualify for advertising awards.

Discussed: what TV work was like in the 1970s and 1980s; why and how the ads made their way to Frank's Idaho TV station (KMVT); and how the internet is a great place to propagate incorrect information.

About the Station

Chris Higgins: Tell me about the station, and what your job was around 1983-1985. ... And how that job has changed over the years.

Tom Frank: I was hired as a "director-operator" out of college. In those days, you pulled a board shift AND directed AND produced spots. It was run more like a radio station but it was my break into the business.

In the late 70's, I was transitioning out of directing and into full time commercial production but still pulled some sign-off shifts after I directed our late news at 10pm. During this time period. I was single and volunteered for the holiday shifts to give the married people time with their families. That is why I was working that "fateful" night.

Now everyone specializes. We run four stations out of here instead of one. Instead of running our programming delayed on film, 2" tape, (both delivered via Greyhound Bus--no UPS or FedEx in those days) or using an off-air signal microwaved in from a Utah TV station (longest microwave link in the U.S. at one time), everything is delivered via satellite (I can see 12 dishes outside of my window). Master control is basically automated. In the old days, everything was triggered and run by hand. Film, tape, slide chains. We took pride in running and switching tight breaks with little or no black between commercial elements. Now everyone specializes in one function or another. We did it all. Wrote copy, voiced, produced, directed, ran camera, ran audio, a little engineering, everything.

Higgins: Why did they pick your station to air these commercials?

Frank: Probably because of our remote location and small nighttime audience. Remember, they were trying to qualify for the next awards season. They really didn't want anyone to see it and comment on it. The Super Bowl was to be the official "premiere." We are also 70 miles south of the ski resort at Sun Valley Idaho. We covered that area via two translators [TV rebroadcast stations -CH] and cable. It is the part time home of many in the entertainment and advertising business. I've always wondered if someone was checking that night to make sure that the spot ran.

About the Ads

Higgins: Do you remember having any reaction to the commercials ("1984" and "Lemmings") at the time? Did you think they were a big deal?

Frank: The "1984" commercial was the better spot in my opinion. Yes, I knew it was something special. Special because of the production values (I have a B.S. in Film and Television), and special because of the instructions I had received about making sure the spot aired correctly and before midnight.

Danger in Master Control

Higgins: What was it like getting these and running them -- you mentioned 2" tapes; what kind of VTR/broadcast gear were you running at the time? (Part of my question here is pure nerd interest....)

Frank: There were three ways to air a spot. On 2" videotape that was sometimes referred to as "quad" because of the four recording heads that scanned the tape, 16mm film, or a slide/cart spot. In a slide/cart spot, you loaded the required 35mm slides in an RCA slide chain (hopefully right side up), then rolled an audio cart with the spot's audio. You then "pulsed" through or changed the slides at spots noted on the written copy that you were reading as the cart rolled.

Equipment wise, we had two RCA-TR61 Quads, an RCA-3 Quad low band deck, three 35mm carousels, two RCA-TP66 film projectors with optical and mag stripe audio and TK-27 cameras, an RCA-TK-610 camera on a film chain with a Bell & Howell 16mm projector. In the studio, we had two Ampex BCP-230 color camera and a B&W Visual Zoom for art cards. Note, NO Character Generator. "Graphics" were plastic letters and a black surface. In the late 70's we bought a simple CG and SONY came out with 3/4". Our world changed overnight!

The stories are numerous. Master control could be a dangerous place. I came on duty one Sunday afternoon and we were airing a one hour reel of Lawrence Welk on a 2" deck that was loaded and started by a previous operator. After the show's airing, I hit the rewind button. Now when those quads went into rewind, the speed up to several hundred revolutions. The aluminum reels were up to a foot and a half or larger in diameter and when fully loaded with tape, they weighed A LOT! The locks that held the tape on the drive motor had not been engaged. At some point after maximum velocity had been reached, the reel of tape came flying off at a high rate of speed, hit the floor, and headed towards me sitting at the master control position at a mach like speed. If it had hit me I would have been in a world of hurt. I jumped up on my chair to avoid the impending videotape reel of doom.

On Setting the Record Straight

Higgins: Has anyone ever asked you about this topic before?

Frank: No one has contacted the station before that I am aware of. Few here know the story, other than folks in my immediate circle. Some ex-employees that were here at the time comment on it from time to time when they see the wrong info online and email me. It's unusual in this business anymore, for anyone to stay at a TV station for as long as me. I am into my 35th year. I am an anomaly.

Higgins: Do you have any idea why people cite the incorrect December 15th/1am date and time?

Frank: I heard just recently that it may have started from a media buyer. That's the funny thing about the internet, things get repeated over and over very quickly without regard to the quality of info. We are overwhelmed with information, so no one really checks anymore. They "trust" what they read as the truth. If those "truths" are not challenged from time to time by people who know otherwise, then they become fact. I wonder how many things that people assume as the truth, are in reality false.

Higgins: Did you air other material like this?

Frank: Other than the "Lemmings" spot, nothing stands out. Idaho is a test market for many grocery products, so we would get a few spots that no one else got.

Higgins: How'd you seeing our story -- do you read Mental Floss?

Frank: There was another story online quoting a book about Apple that mentioned the wrong info. So I just typed in the wrong info and your site came up along with many others. So no, I am not a regular reader.

Higgins: Did you ever end up using a Mac?

Frank: Nope. Always a PC user, and now Android. Part of this issue is that everything built by man breaks. At one time, the closest place to have Mac stuff worked on was in Boise which is 110 miles away. The price point was an issue too. There is still no local place to take a Mac to that I am aware of. Our editing is all done on PCs with NewTek SpeedEdit software. All desktops are PC. We do have one company iPad that we are playing with and several employees have Macs and iPads.

Author's Note on the Internet and Facts

I really appreciate Frank writing in to set the record straight. While I do source (typically double-source) the material I write, it's very easy for an incorrect fact to appear in lots of places and suddenly seem like the truth. I'll be very glad if this article appears as a citation for future references of when the ad first ran. Here you go, future writers: Apple's "1984" ad was first broadcast by Tom Frank on KMVT in Twin Falls, Idaho, on December 31, 1983, during the last commercial break before midnight. Apple's "Lemmings" ad was broadcast on the same schedule the following year.

About Tom Frank

Tom FrankTom Frank is a 35 year veteran of small market broadcasting and of all of the diversity, challenges, and rewards that can be found there. At an early moment in his career, he deciding that chasing the dollar was far less important than the quality of life in a small market and in a small town. Tom is married to Sherry, a CPA whom he fittingly met on a commercial shoot. They have one son who just returned from his 4th tour of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan as a member of the U.S. Army.

11 Forgotten Apple Products

Since Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1997, the computer company has released hit after hit with the iMac, iPod, iPhone, and iPad. However, over their 40-year history, Apple has released a few forgotten products. Here are 11 of them.

1. APPLE IPOD BY HP

Believe it or not, Apple wasn’t the only company to make the iconic iPod. In 2004, Apple partnered with Hewlett-Packard (HP) on the HP iPod (or Apple iPod + HP). At the time, Apple didn’t have the same retail reach as it does today and HP didn’t have a portable music player. The companies joined forces to help each other in the growing music market. Apple could sell the iPod (and iTunes) through more retailers, while HP could have “their own” mp3 player. The partnership only lasted for a year, as Apple refused to service and repair the HP iPod.

2. APPLE MACPHONE

In 1982, German designer Hartmut Esslinger was commissioned to come up with a production line for Apple Computer. He conceived the Apple MacPhone prototype, a landline telephone and tablet combination with a connected stylus and Mac operating system. Although the product was never released, the Apple MacPhone was the precursor to the iconic iPhone.

3. IPOD SOCKS

Introduced in 2004, Apple sold iPod Socks in various colors. A six-pack retailed for $29 and were made to stylishly protect an iPod from scrapes and scratches from daily use. Apple later discontinued the iPod Socks in 2012.

4. ADJUSTABLE KEYBOARD

In 1993, Apple released the Apple Adjustable Keyboard that featured the ability to split in half for better ergonomic typing. It came with a separate numeric keypad with function and navigation keys to the right of the numbers. The keyboard retailed for $219, which is about $369 today. Now that’s a lot of money to spend on a keyboard.

5. IPOD HI-FI

In 2006, Apple designed a speaker system made specifically for the iPod called the iPod Hi-Fi. With the hefty price tag of $349, the iPod Hi-Fi was met with criticism due to the lack of battery charging, AM/FM radio tuner, and compatibility with newer iPods and the iPod Shuffle.

It was discontinued a year later and according to an official statement from the computer company, “Apple has decided to focus priorities on the iPod and iPhone and will not be making more iPod Hi-Fi units. There are over 4,000 accessories in the iPod ecosystem and hundreds of speakers systems designed specifically for the iPod, which provide customers with a wide variety of options.”

6. APPLE TIME BAND

The Apple Time Band concept was featured in a Japanese magazine called Axis in 1991. It resembled an Apple Newton personal digital assistant that could be worn on your wrist like a watch. Almost 25 years later, Apple released the Apple Watch.

7. EWORLD

With the emergence of America Online (AOL) during the early '90s, Apple wanted to get Mac users connected to the Internet with eWorld, an online web portal and “Town Hall” that featured email, news, and community bulletin boards. It launched in 1994 with a price tag of $8.95 a month with just two free hours of online time. It cost an additional $7.95 an hour for day time hours or $4.95 for nights and weekends after that. It's no surprise that eWorld ended just two years later. Apple just couldn’t compete with AOL because it was only open for Mac users and didn’t include a web browser.

8. APPLE EMATE 300

In 1997, Apple made a “budget” touchscreen personal digital assistant for the education market called the Apple eMate 300. It ran the Apple Newton OS and was designed for word processing, note taking, and sketching. The Apple eMate 300 also retailed for $799 and was discontinued a year later (along with the entire Apple product line) when Steve Jobs returned to the computer company and released the original iMac.

Photo: Rod Herrea

9. FLOWER POWER IMAC

In early 2001, the “Flower Power” iMac was released after Apple ran out of colors towards the end of the original device's run. It was a throwback edition to Steve Jobs’s hippie roots in the late '60s and early '70s. The Flower Power iMac was considered tacky at the time and was discontinued five months later during the summer. In addition, Apple also released and discontinued a “Blue Dalmatian” iMac, which was blue with white spots.

10. MACINTOSH BASHFUL

During the early '80s, Apple created a tablet prototype called “The Bashful” in reference to one of the Seven Dwarfs from Disney and the computer company’s “Snow White Industrial-Design Language” they used throughout the decade. There were a number of variations of the Apple tablet that included an attached keyboard, a floppy-disk drive, a stylus, and a handle for mobility. It even featured a version that included an attached phone. More than 25 years later, Apple finally released a tablet with the iPad.

11. THE APPLE COLLECTION

Back in 1986, Apple didn’t just make computers and electronic accessories, it also had a fashion and lifestyle product line with The Apple Collection. A year after Steve Jobs left Apple, the company released Apple-branded clothing and accessories, which featured sweatshirts, belts, wristwatches, stadium cushions, sneakers, jean jackets, Swiss Army knives, and playing cards. The Apple Collection even featured a sailboard with a big ol’ Apple logo on its sail for $1100.

How Apple's '1984' Super Bowl Ad Was Almost Canceled

More than 30 years ago, Apple defined the Super Bowl commercial as a cultural phenomenon. Prior to Super Bowl XVIII, nobody watched the game "just for the commercials"—but one epic TV spot, directed by sci-fi legend Ridley Scott, changed all that. Read on for the inside story of the commercial that rocked the world of advertising, even though Apple's Board of Directors didn't want to run it at all.

THE AD

If you haven't seen it, here's a fuzzy YouTube version:

"WHY 1984 WON'T BE LIKE 1984"

The tagline "Why 1984 Won't Be Like '1984'" references George Orwell's 1949 novel 1984, which envisioned a dystopian future, controlled by a televised "Big Brother." The tagline was written by Brent Thomas and Steve Hayden of the ad firm Chiat\Day in 1982, and the pair tried to sell it to various companies (including Apple, for the Apple II computer) but were turned down repeatedly. When Steve Jobs heard the pitch in 1983, he was sold—he saw the Macintosh as a "revolutionary" product, and wanted advertising to match. Jobs saw IBM as Big Brother, and wanted to position Apple as the world's last chance to escape IBM's domination of the personal computer industry. The Mac was scheduled to launch in late January of 1984, a week after the Super Bowl. IBM already held the nickname "Big Blue," so the parallels, at least to Jobs, were too delicious to miss.

Thomas and Hayden wrote up the story of the ad: we see a world of mind-controlled, shuffling men all in gray, staring at a video screen showing the face of Big Brother droning on about "information purification directives." A lone woman clad in vibrant red shorts and a white tank-top (bearing a Mac logo) runs from riot police, dashing up an aisle towards Big Brother. Just before being snatched by the police, she flings a sledgehammer at Big Brother's screen, smashing him just after he intones "We shall prevail!" Big Brother's destruction frees the minds of the throng, who quite literally see the light, flooding their faces now that the screen is gone. A mere eight seconds before the one-minute ad concludes, a narrator briefly mentions the word "Macintosh," in a restatement of that original tagline: "On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you'll see why 1984 won't be like '1984.'" An Apple logo is shown, and then we're out—back to the game.

In 1983, in a presentation about the Mac, Jobs introduced the ad to a cheering audience of Apple employees:

"... It is now 1984. It appears IBM wants it all. Apple is perceived to be the only hope to offer IBM a run for its money. Dealers, initially welcoming IBM with open arms, now fear an IBM-dominated and -controlled future. They are increasingly turning back to Apple as the only force that can ensure their future freedom. IBM wants it all and is aiming its guns on its last obstacle to industry control: Apple. Will Big Blue dominate the entire computer industry? The entire information age? Was George Orwell right about 1984?"

After seeing the ad for the first time, the Apple audience totally freaked out (jump to about the 5-minute mark to witness the riotous cheering).

SKINHEADS, A DISCUS THROWER, AND A SCI-FI DIRECTOR

Chiat\Day hired Ridley Scott, whose 1982 sci-fi film Blade Runner had the dystopian tone they were looking for (and Alien wasn't so bad either). Scott filmed the ad in London, using actual skinheads playing the mute bald men—they were paid $125 a day to sit and stare at Big Brother; those who still had hair were paid to shave their heads for the shoot. Anya Major, a discus thrower and actress, was cast as the woman with the sledgehammer largely because she was actually capable of wielding the thing.

Mac programmer Andy Hertzfeld wrote an Apple II program "to flash impressive looking numbers and graphs on [Big Brother's] screen," but it's unclear whether his program was used for the final film. The ad cost a shocking $900,000 to film, plus Apple booked two premium slots during the Super Bowl to air it—carrying an airtime cost of more than $1 million.

WHAT EXECUTIVES AT APPLE THOUGHT

Although Jobs and his marketing team (plus the assembled throng at his 1983 internal presentation) loved the ad, Apple's Board of Directors hated it. After seeing the ad for the first time, board member Mike Markkula suggested that Chiat\Day be fired, and the remainder of the board were similarly unimpressed. Then-CEO John Sculley recalled the reaction after the ad was screened for the group: "The others just looked at each other, dazed expressions on their faces ... Most of them felt it was the worst commercial they had ever seen. Not a single outside board member liked it." Sculley instructed Chiat\Day to sell off the Super Bowl airtime they had purchased, but Chiat\Day principal Jay Chiat quietly resisted. Chiat had purchased two slots—a 60-second slot in the third quarter to show the full ad, plus a 30-second slot later on to repeat an edited-down version. Chiat sold only the 30-second slot and claimed it was too late to sell the longer one. By disobeying his client's instructions, Chiat cemented Apple's place in advertising history.

When Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak heard that the ad was in trouble, he offered to pony up half the airtime costs himself, saying, "I asked how much it was going to cost, and [Steve Jobs] told me $800,000. I said, 'Well, I'll pay half of it if you will.' I figured it was a problem with the company justifying the expenditure. I thought an ad that was so great a piece of science fiction should have its chance to be seen."

But Woz didn't have to shell out the money; the executive team finally decided to run a 100-day advertising extravaganza for the Mac's launch, starting with the Super Bowl ad—after all, they had already paid to shoot it and were stuck with the airtime.

1984 - Big Brother

WHAT EVERYBODY ELSE THOUGHT

When the ad aired, controversy erupted—viewers either loved or hated the ad, and it spurred a wave of media coverage that involved news shows replaying the ad as part of covering it, leading to estimates of an additional $5 million in "free" airtime for the ad. All three national networks, plus countless local markets, ran news stories about the ad. "1984" become a cultural event, and served as a blueprint for future Apple product launches. The marketing logic was brilliantly simple: create an ad campaign that sparked controversy (for example, by insinuating that IBM was like Big Brother), and the media will cover your launch for free, amplifying the message.

The full ad famously ran once during the Super Bowl XVIII (on January 22, 1984), but it also ran the month prior—on December 31, 1983, TV station operator Tom Frank ran the ad on KMVT at the last possible time slot before midnight, in order to qualify for 1983's advertising awards.* (Any awards the ad won would mean more media coverage.) Apple paid to screen the ad in movie theaters before movie trailers, further heightening anticipation for the Mac launch. In addition to all that, the 30-second version was aired across the country after its debut on the Super Bowl.

Chiat\Day adman Steve Hayden recalled: "We ran a 30- second version of '1984' in the top 10 U.S. markets, plus, in an admittedly childish move, in an 11th market—Boca Raton, Florida, headquarters for IBM's PC division." Mac team member Andy Hertzfeld ended his remembrance of the ad by saying:

"A week after the Macintosh launch, Apple held its January board meeting. The Macintosh executive staff was invited to attend, not knowing what to expect. When the Mac people entered the room, everyone on the board rose and gave them a standing ovation, acknowledging that they were wrong about the commercial and congratulating the team for pulling off a fantastic launch.

Chiat\Day wanted the commercial to qualify for upcoming advertising awards, so they ran it once at 1 AM at a small television station in Twin Falls, Idaho, KMVT, on December 15, 1983 [incorrect; see below for an update on this -ed]. And sure enough it won just about every possible award, including best commercial of the decade. Twenty years later it's considered one of the most memorable television commercials ever made."

THE AWFUL 1985 FOLLOW-UP

A year later, Apple again employed Chiat\Day to make a blockbuster ad for their Macintosh Office product line, which was basically a file server, networking gear, and a laser printer. Directed by Ridley Scott's brother Tony, the new ad was called "Lemmings," and featured blindfolded businesspeople whistling an out-of-tune version of Snow White's "Heigh-Ho" as they followed each other off a cliff (referencing the myth of lemming suicide).

Jobs and Sculley didn't like the ad, but Chiat\Day convinced them to run it, pointing out that the board hadn't liked the last ad either. But unlike the rousing, empowering message of the "1984" ad, "Lemmings" directly insulted business customers who had already bought IBM computers. It was also weirdly boring—when it was aired at the Super Bowl (with Jobs and Sculley in attendance), nobody really reacted. The ad was a flop, and Apple even proposed running a printed apology in The Wall Street Journal. Jay Chiat shot back, saying that if Apple apologized, Chiat would buy an ad on the next page, apologizing for the apology. It was a mess:

20-YEAR ANNIVERSARY

In 2004, the ad was updated for the launch of the iPod. The only change was that the woman with the hammer was now listening to an iPod, which remained clipped to her belt as she ran. You can watch that version too:

FURTHER READING

Chiat\Day adman Lee Clow gave an interview about the ad, covering some of this material.

Check out Mac team member Andy Hertzfeld's excellent first-person account of the ad. A similar account (but with more from Jobs's point of view) can found in the Steve Jobs biography, and an even more in-depth account is in The Mac Bathroom Reader. The Mac Bathroom Reader is out of print; you can read an excerpt online, including QuickTime movies of the two versions of the ad, plus a behind-the-scenes video. Finally, you might enjoy this 2004 USA Today article about the ad, pointing out that ads for other computers (including Atari, Radio Shack, and IBM's new PCjr) also ran during that Super Bowl.

* = A Note on the Airing in 1983

Update: Thanks to Tom Frank for writing in to correct my earlier mis-statement about the first air date of this commercial. As you can see in his comment below, Hertzfeld's comments above (and the dates cited in other accounts I've seen) are incorrect. Stay tuned for an upcoming interview with Frank, in which we discuss what it was like running both "1984" and "Lemmings" before they were on the Super Bowl!

Update 2: You can read the story behind this post in Chris's book The Blogger Abides.

This post originally appeared in 2012.

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