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  • "For the Rest of Us":A Reader-Oriented Interpretation of Apple's "1984" Commercial
  • Linda M. Scott (bio)

It was a bright cold day in January, and the clocks were showing third quarter. Fifty million Americans nuzzled in the breasts of their telescreens, staring down into the Super Bowl stadium. They slipped through the afternoon glassily, with their beer and their Winstons and their friends. Suddenly the predictable drone of sportscasters was interrupted by a gritty sixty-second metaphor. A young woman athlete being chased by faceless storm-troopers raced past hundreds of vacant-eyed workers and hurled a sledgehammer into the image of a menacing voice. A transcendent blast. Then a calm, cultivated speaker assured the astonished multitudes that 1984 would not be like 1984. Macintosh had entered the arena.

A sports announcer lost composure: "Wow, what was that?"1 Then the buzzing began. "It's the only commercial that has ever appeared on the Super Bowl that got people in bar rooms talking about the commercial instead of the game," said an adman later.2 All three networks covered the spot on the evening news, as did 50 local news shows. That week, countless newspapers and magazines ran stories with titles like "What were you doing when the '1984' commercial ran?"3 The now-famous sixty seconds were furiously debated in workplaces around the country for days.4

Although it aired nationally only once,5 the commercial called "1984" was, within weeks, considered an advertising legend—but one that inspired as much ire as awe.6 "Sheer wretched excess," hooted the advertising trade press.7 "Sophomoric" and "indulgent" sniffed one creative director; "courageous" countered another.8 The Apple executives who had authorized the $1.6 million spot were deluged with mail from irate shareholders, charging them with a breach of fiduciary responsibility.9 Yet the spot had gotten more free air play than a public relations man would dare to pray for.

In the debate over "1984," there was only one point of consensus: this spot had broken every rule of the advertising genre. There were no product shots, no on-camera demonstrations, no litanies of product specs, and only minimal corporate identification. Around the conference tables of the advertising world, conventional wisdom held that "1984" was brilliant theatre, but it was not advertising.10

The consumer response must have stumped the keepers of conventions. Three days after "1984" aired, when the Macintosh became available in retail stores, more than 200,000 people stood in line waiting for the doors to open. Within six hours, $3.5 million in computers had been sold and deposits on orders taken for $1 million more. Apple Computer, which was geared up to make a Macintosh every 27 seconds, was faced with a back order problem.11

The purpose here is to explain the persuasive power of this unorthodox advertisement, using a reader-oriented, or rhetorical, approach adapted from literary criticism. Because the commercial operates in a concentrated, metaphorical fashion through a quick series of images and sounds, it remains rather cryptic to more traditional ways of understanding advertising, which tend to focus on the arrangement of logical arguments, positioned for a particular target audience and supported by a network of verbal, visual, and dramatic "proofs." Practical approaches to the art of advertising have much in common with classic rhetoric. Although advertising practitioners are seldom schooled in the subtleties of ethos or the importance of dispositio, their approaches are often analogous to those of Plato or Aristotle, whether they are researching audience appeals or creating brand personalities. Persuasion is always central; yet the widely-held notion that advertising works through the clever arrangement of statements, dressed for effective delivery, can be illusory. Much advertising is instead an imaginative kind of rhetoric that gains assent through affect, fantasy, or even the appreciation of form, rather than through an architectonic of arguments.12

"1984" is one of those advertisements. Its theme is one of radical, individual action to prevent homogenizing tyranny: a singular, individuated logic destroying an externally-imposed, collective one. And its form is a mirror of that theme. While consistently counterpointing conventional commercial appeals and forms, this spot communicates through an artful...