- Time and Meaning: "1984" in 2012
Common wisdom often holds that great works of art are timeless. For a rhetorical theorist like myself, such claims are ludicrous: rhetorical thought holds that all reader responses are situated in history and culture. Therefore, as the backdrop shifts, the ability to engage with a particular piece changes and so, too, the evaluation of the work. The "1984" Apple commercial, long a favorite of many advertising professionals, is subject to the same fate.
Not that you would fail to count me among "1984" fans. I have been a stubborn Apple computer devotee since the late 1970s, about as long as Apple has been around. I have been one of those Apple users, now a dying breed, who sees their choice of machine as a moral issue, a litmus test of conscience and creativity. Like other longtime MacHeads, I have watched and collected Apple communications just as some others keep Elvis memorabilia or Grateful Dead posters.
Indeed, the first academic paper of my career was the piece on "1984" that is reprinted in this issue of Advertising & Society Review. I also have used my enviable collection of Apple stuff to teach advertising and branding for more than 20 years now. Today, it is commonplace for professionals to point to Apple as the most well-managed brand in history. I myself find that tracing the evolution of the Apple brand over time is one of the best ways to teach good practice.
The "1984" commercial was a defining moment in the history of the Apple brand, but it also acts as a good formal example of the way key elements, from color schemes to narratives to personalities, can move in and out of the brand repertoire, being constantly reinvented and yet remaining somehow consistent. In my lectures, I draw parallels between images and slogans from Apple's early advertising and the look, story, and feel of "1984," while foreshadowing those elements that continued. From a business strategy point of view, the Macintosh moment at Apple is a beautiful illustration of the way innovation and branding protect a company from the downward spiral of commodity pricing. As someone who was actually working in computer advertising in northern California during the early 1980s, I can remember that the consensus was to imitate IBM as much as possible, but to underprice them—this is a textbook recipe for commoditization, a blueprint for business disaster (we even called these products "IBM clones," for heaven's sake). Yet the prevailing groupthink was so powerful that Apple looked poignantly naïve in its determination to position itself as "not IBM," even as clones lockstepped to bankruptcy. Today, the whole narrative makes a great case study in what it takes to be a real brand leader.
Nevertheless, as I have observed the changes over time in my students' responses to "1984," I have also seen rhetorical theory reinforced: since readers create their own textual experiences, the meaning of any message, no matter how well crafted, shifts with the available knowledge and, therefore, with time. So, my students at Oxford today simply do not read "1984" the way it was read by Americans in 1984.
When I first started teaching "1984," in the University of Illinois' highly regarded advertising department, the spot had already become canonical, appearing consistently at the top of "best" lists and in the finale of advertising retrospectives. The commercial was so well recognized, in fact, that there were years when I wondered if I even needed to show it to the students, as well as times when I suspected they were mentally rolling their eyes at having to watch it yet again. (But here it is, in case today's readers haven't seen it.)
I moved to Oxford in 2006 and soon began a popular branding class. For that course, I have developed Apple into an extended case study that starts with Steve W and Steve J in...