Apple's 1984 Super Bowl Ad

When my mother got angry (which was rare), she went to the kitchen, washing LOUDLY any dishes she discovered in the sink. And if there were pots and pans, she deliberately would crash them together as she put them away. This noise served to announce to the entire household (if not the city block) her displeasure at something. To this day, whenever I hear loudly clanging pots and pans, I experience an emotionally competent stimulus—a fleeting sense of “You’re in trouble now!” My wife, whose mother never displayed anger in this fashion, does not associate anything emotional with the noise of pots and pans. It’s a uniquely stimulated, John-specific ECS.

Universally experienced stimuli come directly from our evolutionary heritage, so they hold the greatest potential for use in teaching and business. Not surprisingly, they follow strict Darwinian lines of threats and energy resources. Regardless of who you are, the brain pays a great deal of attention to these questions:

“Can I eat it? Will it eat me?”

“Can I mate with it? Will it mate with me?”

“Have I seen it before?”

Any of our ancestors who didn’t remember threatening experiences thoroughly or acquire food adequately would not live long enough to pass on his genes. The human brain has many dedicated systems exquisitely tuned to reproductive opportunity and to the perception of threat. We also are terrific pattern matchers, constantly assessing our environment for similarities, and we tend to remember things if we think we have seen them before.

One of the best TV spots ever made used all three principles in an ever-increasing spiral. Stephen Hayden produced the commercial, introducing the Apple computer in 1984. It won every major advertising award that year and set a standard for Super Bowl ads. The commercial opens onto a bluish auditorium filled with robot-like men all dressed alike. In a reference to the 1956 movie 1984, the men are staring at a screen where a giant male face is spouting off platitude fragments such as “information purification!” and “unification of thought!” The men in the audience are absorbing these messages like zombies. Then the camera shifts to a young woman in gym clothes, sledgehammer in hand, running full tilt toward the auditorium. She is wearing red shorts, the only primary color in the entire commercial. Sprinting down the center aisle, she throws her sledgehammer at the screen containing Big Brother. The screen explodes in a hail of sparks and blinding light. Plain letters flash on the screen: “On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like 1984.”

All of the elements are at work here. Nothing could be more threatening to a country marinated in free speech than George Orwell’s 1984 totalitarian society. There is sex appeal, with the revealing gym shorts, but there is a twist. Mac is a female, so-o-o … IBM must be a male. In the female-empowering 1980s, a whopping statement on the battle of the sexes suddenly takes center stage. Pattern matching abounds as well. Many people have read 1984 or seen the movie. Moreover, people who were really into computers at the time made the connection to IBM, a company often called Big Blue for its suit-clad sales force.

What most people remember about that commercial is its emotional appeal rather than every detail. There is a reason for that. The brain remembers the emotional components of an experience better than any other aspect.

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