Content Quality Lesson: Apple’s 1984 Super Bowl Ad

Macworld - Steve Jobs with original Macs 1984Do you consistently produce quality content?

To paraphrase Stan Lee, the creator of Spiderman, “With great content come great brands!”

To help you, let’s examine this content marketing quality lesson,’s  Apple’s 1984 Super Bowl ad. While it broke all of the rules at the time, it remains the benchmark for not only Super Bowl ad but also content marketing quality.

Apple’s 1984 Super Bowl Ad Quality Content Lesson

Steve Jobs understood the value of content quality before the term content marketing was coined. Great content requires a memorable story at its core.

So Jobs didn’t leave his storytelling to just anyone. He chose Blade Runners high-profile director Ridley Scott.

Using the tagline “Why 1984 Won’t Be Like ‘1984’” Apple’s ad borrowed George Orwell’s novel.

At that time, Apple’s Macintosh was a small startup aiming to position itself  against the IBM PC. Its story line comes right out of the bible’s David versus Goliath.

Further continuing the connection to Orwell’s book, 1984, the ad transforms IBM into Big Brother.

Cover of MacWorld, Issue #1Setting the standard for great content, the 1984 Macintosh ad neither promoted nor pushed the product.

In fact, the product’s only appearance was the line drawing on the runner’s t-shirt and it’s voiceover tagline at the end. This was sufficient.

The runner’s message was larger than the Macintosh. It positioned Apple as the spunky upstart challenging the dull establishment.

Television ads worked (and still do) on repeated viewings. Yet, Apple only aired this ad once for an audience to view. At the time, the only platform to see a video ad was television. This created scarcity and talkability, which news shows were happy to provide!

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7 Content Quality Lessons Based On Apple’s 1984 Ad

Here are the key attributes of Apple’s content lesson regardless of the size of your marketing budget.

1. Position your brand, not just your product

Unlike most content marketing, Apple’s ad went further than just incorporating brand elements. It positioned the brand.

You need a hook your audience knows, particularly with a new offering. Apple positioned itself as the little guy against IBM, Big Blue.

Critical point: It wasn’t subtle; every viewer got it. This isn’t new. Read Trout and Ries’s Positioning: The Battle For Your Mind.

2. Know your customer

Apple’s targeted a new breed of computer users.

Not only did they want to rebel against the existing way of doing things, but also they loved science fiction. (Take it from me—I’ve sold lots of science fiction in my career.) As a result, this content spoke its audience’s language. This understanding became a core element of the Apple culture.

3. Use a classic story arc

Deeper than Orwell’s classic tale was the David against Goliath narrative arc. Even more striking in 1984 was that the runner was a woman. While women’s lib was well entrenched in society, computer users were almost all men. At the time, Apple was literally David; it had tiny market share.

4. Include an element of surprise

The ad incorporated emotion in the form of skillfully built up suspense and shattered it literally with a hammer blow. While built on the 1984 story, the ad changed the ending. Unlike Winston Smith, Apple’s runner is triumphant.

5. Build controversy

The ad was either loved or hated. Apple’s board didn’t like the ad.

6. Created talkability

The ad’s price, content and scarcity created buzz. In an era where marketers didn’t plan Super Bowl advertising support such as websites and social media, Apple planned 100 days of promotion for the Macintosh following the Super Bowl.

7. Measure the “right” results to prove increased profitability

What did Apple gain with this expensive advertising investment? By 1984 standards, Apple’s ad was expensive. It cost $900,000 to produce and $800,000 for the 60 second media spot. (Note: To quality for advertising awards, the ad aired in the wee hours of the morning in a small tv market when no one was up.)

YET Apple’s 1984 Super Bowl investment yielded measurable results:

  • Earned media. In 1984’s pre-Internet, pre-social media, Apple received $5 million in free television time with post-Super Bowl news discussion. This was PR at its best.
  • Sales. Apple sold $155 million worth of Macintoshes in the 3 months following the Super Bowl.
  • Positioning. Apple cemented its position as the IBM competitor.
  • Corporate knowledge. Steve Jobs built his blueprint for product launches based on the 1984 ad and rollout.

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Why do marketers go wrong with quality content?

Great brands need great content.

It’s not about the size of your company or your marketing budget.

Rather, it’s about thinking different, as Apple’s tagline states.

The Quality Content Marketing Lesson:
You need quality content unique to your brand to create and support it. You can’t accomplish this by trying to copy another brand.

Apply these 7 quality content marketing elements to make your brand standout for your audience.

Happy Marketing,
Heidi Cohen

Heidi CohenHeidi Cohen is the President of Riverside Marketing Strategies.
You can find Heidi on FacebookTwitter and LinkedIn.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on Feb 3, 2014  and updated on Feb 5, 2023.

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Photo credit: Cover of the first Macworld Magazine (personal collection)

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