A recent article in Slate accused Apple of creating both the best and worst Super Bowl ads of all time. While I think the author stretched the point of the "worst" ad, Apple's iconic 1984 ad remains arguably the most famous TV ad of all time.
Some of that fame results from its cinema-quality production at a time when most commercials still had a "Mad Men" feel to them. In addition, the 1984 ad started the tradition of Super Bowl ads as a watchable event in and of themselves.
What often goes unnoticed, however, is that the 1984 ad isn't about a product. It's about the meaning of a product. The product itself isn't shown and the ad provides absolutely no details about the product.
To understand how unusual this was (and is), it helps to compare the iconic Apple ad with another 1984 Super Bowl ad for a new computer, the Tandy 2000. (Thanks to Justin Peters of Slate for bringing this to my attention.) Here are both:
While the Apple ad has a droning background voice throughout, it ends with what is essentially a single sentence:
"On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you'll see why 1984 won't be like '1984.'"
By contrast, the Tandy ad, has the following script:
"It's the dawn of a new era in micro computer technology! The Tandy TRS-80 Model 2000 personal computer from Radio Shack is designed to meet your personal computing needs.
"It's faster, with higher resolution, more storage and regular expandability than IBM's PC. It's high performance gives you the leading edge of Radio Shack's computer technology. "
"The Tandy TRS-80 Model 2000 personal computer. The dawn of a new era in personal computing."
In addition to showing the product throughout, the Tandy ad also displays the product name, the "Radio Shack Computer Centers" logo, and the price "Systems from $2999.00″
The Tandy ad crams all that product information into 30 seconds, while the Apple ad, which is free of any product information, is twice as long.
What's fascinating about the Tandy ad is that it could have been written yesterday. Every day, I get press releases and read sales messages that look as if they were written by whoever wrote the Tandy ad.
Marketers are still using buzzwords like "dawn of a new era," "designed to meet your needs," and "gives you the leading edge." They're still touting all those great features and functions.
Except that nobody really cares about any of that. Nobody cares about your company, your product, your logo, your features and functions or even your price. All people really care about is meaning.
Effective marketing and sales messages are always about meaning. What would it mean to buy this rather than that? How will my world be different? How will it be better? Why will I be happier?
Apple's 1984 ad remains relevant today not because it changed marketing and advertising, but because it didn't. Yes, Super Bowl ads have become works of art, but day-to-day marketing continues to be as boring and unimaginative as it was 32 years ago.