Let’s compare Apple’s 1984 Super Bowl Ad to their follow-up “Big Game” ad in ’85.

And it’s a timely comparison as the director of the 1985 ad, Tony Scott, would go on to direct Top Gun the very next year.

Unfortunately, while Top Gun would go on to become the highest-grossing film of the year and inspire life-long fans currently flocking to the sequel, Tony Scott’s 1985 Super Bowl ad has largely faded from history.

In fact, chances are you’ve never seen or even heard of Tony’s Super Bowl ad.

Because while Apple’s 1984 ad became legendary, Tony’s spot is widely regarded as Apple’s worst ad ever.

Yet comparing the two spots demonstrates some very powerful advertising lessons for owner-operated businesses.

Apple’s “1984” Advertising Spot

If you’ve never seen Apple’s “1984,” or it’s been a while since you’ve watched, here it is:


It’s largely seen as the best Super Bowl Ad of all time, and I’d rank it as one of the most effective as well.

It accomplished everything one could ask of a campaign, let alone a single ad:

  • It instantly moved Apple from forgotten to famous
  • It sold out the new product it was introducing
  • It reframed audience perception of Apple from Also-Ran to Rebel

And though we now take for granted that a Super Bowl ad will feature high-end production, cinematic storytelling (in this case from a storied director like Ridley Scott), and serious entertainment, that simply wasn’t the case before this ad.

Back then, the spots that ran during the “Big Game” were just regular old ads. For perspective, here’s another computer ad from that same 1984 Super Bowl:


So if you look forward to watching Super Bowl ads, you can thank Apple’s “1984” for that.

Apple’s “Lemmings” Advertising Spot

So what happened to Apple in 1985?

Did Apple move from high-end production and cinematic storytelling to a boring, Tandy-like spot?

No, actually.

The 1985 spot, titled “Lemmings,” also featured high-end production, cinematic storytelling (from director Tony Scott), and the introduction of a new product designed to get the world talking.

Except it was a huge failure. Take a look:


So what happened?

Basically, the Chiat/Day ad team failed Symbology 101.

Here’s the quick version of the essential differences between — and lessons to take from — the two ads:

  1. A powerful negative image has to be overturned by a more powerful positive image.
  2. You always want your prospect to identify with the product (and to be flattered by that identification)
  3. If you write a check with your advertising that your product can’t cash, you will bite the karmic weenie.

For each of these factors, Apple’s 1984 Super Bowl ad got it right, while their 1985 ad got it disastrously wrong.

Let’s dig down into why.

A Powerful Negative Image Has to Be Overturned by a More Powerful Positive Image

Apple’s “1984” certainly starts bleak and dystopian, with a gray color palette, images of brainwashed masses, and a creepy soundtrack.

But it doesn’t end that way at all.

It ends with the emotionally galvanizing imagery of the orange-clad rebel woman hurling her sledgehammer and destroying “The Man,” and (presumably) his totalitarian regime along with it.

The ad ends with the symbolism and emotion of liberation and joyous rebellion.

So those are the emotions that stuck to the brand.

And remember, branding is association design. The whole idea is to get the audience to associate the right emotions and imagery with your brand.

Apple’s “1984” Super Bowl spot did this brilliantly.

“Lemmings,” on the other hand, fails this test disastrously.

It, too, starts bleak and dystopian, with a gray color palette, images of brainwashed masses, and a creepy soundtrack.

But it doesn’t end with powerful, positive imagery at all.

Instead, it ends with one “suit” taking off his blindfold and standing at the edge of a cliff, with the barest glimmer of light on the horizon.

Given that, what emotions stuck to the brand?

Negative ones. And that’s fatal for branding.

That ad forced Apple to close production plants, killed the Chiat/Day partnership with Apple for decades, and led to the ousting of Steve Jobs from the company.

So yeah, that’s a failure in all the ways you could care to measure it.

You Always Want Your Prospect to Identify with the Product

In the “1984” ad, the sledge-hammer-wielding woman in orange shorts certainly represents the Macintosh product.

But in the minds of viewers, it also represents Macintosh owners.

Symbolically, the ad is inviting viewers to join the rebellion against Big Corporate Computing (aka, IBM).

In that sense, it’s flattering would-be Macintosh buyers by portraying them as heroes and rebels.

That’s a good move and a good look, which is why the ad was wildly successful.

In contrast, “Lemmings” presented non-Apple customers — 99% of the viewers — as, well, lemmings.

It made non-Apple prospects self-identify with stupid, blindfolded people, dully walking off of a cliff.

This is why when Apple test-played the ad to Mac faithful, they cheered for the ad, while the Super Bowl audience hated it.

“If you write a check with your advertising that your product can’t cash, you will bite the karmic weenie.”

The main goal of the “1984” Ad was to create interest in the new Macintosh.

And it did.

The ad drove customers into stores so they could see the Macintosh for themselves. Once customers saw and played with the revolutionary operating system, they bought it.

Similarly, the 1985 Ad was supposed to create interest in Macintosh Office, a software system that would allow file sharing and desktop publishing over a local network.

Except, Macintosh Office wouldn’t be ready for another two years — with the first copies available in 1987.

So whatever percentage of prospects who weren’t offended by “Lemmings,” and who did respond by wanting to see the product, not only found no product, but couldn’t even be given a short-term ETA for its availability.

That’s an “L” if there ever was one.

As one Apple executive said:

“If you write a check with your advertising that your product can’t cash, you will bite the karmic weenie.”

Enough About Apple, What About You?

Keep in mind that it was the same legendary ad team behind “Lemmings” who had created “1984”.

So these mistakes aren’t limited to amateurs or dummies. Brilliant creative teams can and do make these same mistakes.

They can happen to anyone who doesn’t have a deep understanding of the Why behind their craft.

Take Negative Mental Images.

Creatives are often tempted to start an ad with a negative first mental image, not because they’re dumb, but because they understand how powerfully provocative and arresting a negative image can be.

These are good things when you need your ad to grab attention and break through the clutter.

The problem comes when that ad team lets those negative images either offend the viewer or attach themselves to the brand.

So it’s worth asking:

Do your ads go negative?

And if they do, do they end with strong positive imagery?

Or do they run the risk of letting that negativity attach to your brand?

On a similar note, do your ads present your prospect as the hero? Or at least in a positive light?

It’s OK to present yourself as the thinking man’s choice.

It’s not OK to present prospective customers as stupid for not choosing you previously.

Finally, is your company capable of fulfilling the promises of your ads?

‘Cause if your ads mess up on these factors, there’s a strong chance you’ll end up “biting the Karmic weanie.”

Interested in an ad consultant who understands the WHY as well as the HOW and the WHAT? Let’s talk.