The commercial that ruined that Super Bowl

By Michael Weinreb

They tell me that another Super Bowl is nearly upon us, and if you find yourself wondering how exactly this football game became nothing like an actual football game — if you are in search of the precise moment when it became a vehicle for the manifestation of American capitalism, when the football gave way to a melange of advertisements featuring talking squirrels and assorted kicks in the groin — then a one-minute spot that aired 25 years ago is probably the best place to start. For it was on that day, during the third quarter of the most lopsided Super Bowl in the first 18 years of its existence (Raiders 38, Redskins 9), that a burgeoning personal-computer company chose to air an ad despite the misgivings of its board of directors, and in so doing, forced us all to watch the commercials.

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The retail price for a new Mac in 1984: $2,495.
The ad was titled “1984,” and it was the first and only Super Bowl spot driven by German Expressionism sensibilities and obvious literary allusions to the work of a British intellectual author. Its featured character was a spiky-haired woman dressed up like a Hooters waitress and toting a massive sledgehammer, and its message managed to be both subversive and sneakily capitalistic, dismissive of its direct competitor, IBM, as a “Big Brother” figure straight out of George Orwell’s “1984.” Power to the people, this company seemed to be telling us, without showing the product or even explaining what it was. The next day, 200,000 consumers rushed to stores to look at the newest innovation in personal computing, the Apple Macintosh, and, according to author Bernice Kanner, 72,000 Macs were sold within the first 100 days of the ad’s airing, exceeding the company’s goals by 50 percent.

Virtually all those involved in the production eventually became legends in their respective fields (including the director, Ridley Scott, and Apple co-founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, and copywriters Steve Hayden and Lee Clow), and the ad itself, with all its attendant mythology, became the Madison Avenue version of “Citizen Kane.” And — most important — the notion of the Super Bowl as a mecca for “edgy” and absurdly expensive advertising was born.

“That’s the inspiring part of it,” says Derek Rucker, an assistant professor of marketing at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, who has studied and taught about Super Bowl advertising. “It does tell you that advertising, when done right, can be of interest to consumers.”

Go ahead. Take one minute of your life to watch the “1984” ad. Even if you are not an Apple acolyte, even if you found “Blade Runner” boring and overrated, even if you find dystopian imagery to be especially depressing, you cannot deny the fact that this is a beautiful production, surprisingly rich in subtext. And yet I would argue that, in the 25 years since, the brilliance of this one advertisement did more to ruin the Super Bowl as an actual sporting event than any single minute in the game’s history. And this shouldn’t really bother me, but it does, if only because every year, the game becomes harder and harder to watch.

Maybe that sounds curmudgeonly. Yet I will admit that there was a time, perhaps 15 years ago, when I didn’t mind the fact that the commercials had come to mean so much, when their prominence seemed to actually contribute to the gigantism of the Super Bowl itself, when even the musings at Super Bowl parties of people who did not understand the concept of the forward pass did not bother me much. The commercials gave them something to do, after all, something to talk about when the actual football was being played; some of these, like the Michael Jordan-Larry Bird H-O-R-S-E ad, were actually endearing little portraits. But lately, it seemed to me that the commercials were getting repetitive and facile and crude, and I thought I might be imagining this until I looked at USA Today’s Super Bowl ad meter, which measures viewer reaction to commercials: In 2008, the top four ads involved: (a) a Dalmatian interacting with a Clydesdale (which, I will admit, was strangely well-executed); (b) oversized carrier pigeons; (c) a squirrel evading harm from an automobile; and (d) a rat grasping for some dude’s Doritos.

Rucker referred to these ads as “animal executions”; he considers it a trend, and he wonders how long it will last. I consider it the perfect example of how “1984” has spawned a monster (though, in this case, the monster might be a Stegosaurus racing a FedEx delivery man on the surface of the moon). In order to capture our attention, in order to make us buzz, in order to live up to the attendant hype that occurs when every party and bar audience in America pauses during the commercial breaks, these companies have largely resorted to simple ideas, silly ideas, empty ideas (and even the “big” ideas, like Under Armour’s attempt to bring back the ethic of “1984” by selling shoes last year, seem confusing and overtly corporate). They have, in fact, gone in the opposite direction of “1984.” The days of German Expressionism and Orwellian notions and subtle populist themes are gone; long live the juggling hedgehog.

The list price for a 30-second act in this year’s Super Bowl is $3 million. While certain stalwarts (like FedEx) have dropped out, there is a sense among other major corporations that they must advertise during the Super Bowl, that their brand will suffer if they don’t, even in these bleakest of economic times (many companies actually bought their ad blocks before the worst of the downturn). But it is about more than that — to justify spending that much money, Rucker says, all these companies have endeavored to turn their commercials into events themselves, separate and outside of the game. (After all, much of “1984”‘s publicity came from being rebroadcast on nightly news programs.) And so they publicize their advertisements before the game, and they publicize their advertisements after the game, and they post their ads on YouTube, imagining that we will spend the day after the game nursing our hangovers by indulging our interest in their spot featuring, say, a time-traveling llama. And much of the time, it doesn’t work anyway — in the DVR age, the only commercials I seem to remember are the simple and repetitive ones that air four million times during live sporting events (speaking of which, did you hear there’s a truck bed in which you can store your hammers and stuff?). These days, most Super Bowl ads are here and then gone, and they just make the whole experience seem cheaper; it’s as if corporate America is shouting and pratfalling for three hours straight, ruining what is sometimes a perfectly good matchup.

This, I’m afraid, is the unfortunate aspect of “1984”‘s legacy: It was so successful that everything that came afterward simply pales in comparison. Even the game itself.

Michael Weinreb’s book “Game of Kings: A Year Among the Oddballs and Geniuses Who Make Up America’s Top High School Chess Team” has been released in paperback by Gotham Books. He is working on a book about sports in the 1980s. He can be reached at