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(Note: this article is the first in a long term series on classic ads, where I explain some of the timeless features that made these works of commercial art great. This series will help you get an understanding of why advertising works when it does–and how you can harness the same features in your own marketing).

Apple’s “1984” ad is probably the most famous marketing piece of all time. While some ads have more views on Youtube, there is no ad that has generated more interest across more generations than Apple’s classic  anti-Authoritarian superbowl piece.

Interestingly enough, this piece was only ever aired twice, and Apple strongly considered not even running it. Despite this, its legacy is undeniable. Often voted the greatest ad of all time, its classic mix of Orwellian Imagery and a message of hope for a better future, have become cultural hallmarks.

So, what is it that makes this ad so great, anyway?

Let’s take a look:

1. It Gets Attention–Instantly.

Apple’s 1984 ad gets attention immediately in a very unique way: it uses jarring and unsettling imagery. The ad starts with a loud noise; the next thing we see is a nearly black and white procession of workers marching in lockstep to the sound of a dark, ominous voice.

At first glance this might seem like a bad idea. After all, negative imagery can form negative associations. But because the ad’s opening images are so jarring, they immediately stand out, guaranteeing that this won’t be yet another ad you ignore. 

2. It Tells A Story.

This is how ‘1984’ spins its risky opening gambit into a huge positive.

From amid the the darkness of the marching black and white soldiers comes a heroic female figure with a hammer, smashing the video image of Big Brother with one throw. One single individual defies a dictator who is commanding a room full of hundreds. This story is:

A) Familiar (since it’s based off of a book most of us we recognize).

B) Universally appealing (virtually everyone loves the underdog).

3. It’s Bold.

Another very good feature this ad has is its boldness. The message, that this new computer, the Mac, is going to prevent a totalitarian dictatorship, might come on just a little bit too strong. But that could very well be the genius of it; such a bold statement is one you’re not going to forget for a long, long time.

4. It Doesn’t JUST Rely On “Creativity.”

Last but not least, one of the “hidden” strengths of the 1984 ad is that it’s not just relying on the narrative techniques I just described.

There are many ads that try to rely on simply creativity alone. I like to call these “jingle and symbol” ads because they usually consist of nothing more than a series of images played to music with the company’s logo being shown at the end. The idea here is that positive imagery followed by showing the company’s logo will create positive associations in the viewer’s subconscious mind and influence buying behavior that way.


I don’t think I need to explain in detail the silliness of that idea–unless you’re one of the people who practices this sort of thing, it’s fairly easy to see its flaws.

That said, it’s not that this “creative” stuff does nothing–because it does quite a lot–it’s that it does nothing unless benefits are demonstrated too.

That’s where the closing text in the 1984 ad comes into play. By explaining that “on _______ Apple will release MacIntosh, and 1984 won’t be like 1984” the ad weaves in a clear value proposition: a more user friendly and less restrictive computer. This gives the viewer a clear idea of what to expect, which is further reinforced by all the imagery and storytelling earlier in the ad. Sadly, many ads that use clever storytelling techniques forget about this crucial final component.

Imagine if the 1984 ad did not include that text at the end. It would barely be an advertisement at all. Today, too many advertisers follow this approach… But, 30 years ago, somebody at Apple evidently “Thought Different.” And the rest, they say, is history.


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