#196 In which our hero greatly over-analyzes a TV commercial, driven to do so by the obliviousness of his co-workers.
Ugh, I can’t work. That’s the bad thing about my job (and actually, about me in general) is if I become distracted it’s really hard for me to regain focus and do my job. This has happened in the past when The Scientist and I have a fight… I’m usually worthless until everything has been reconciled.
Right now I’m distracted by a creative brief that just came across my desk. In it, the account executive has written that the client has instructed us to take all the work we’ve done in the past 10 months, wrap it in a burlap sack, shit in the sack, then douse it with gasoline and light it on fire. When the ashes cool, I need to mold them into something beautiful that will drive additional traffic to their stores.
I may be paraphrasing a bit.
But it still sucks. And it’s a person I’ve had issues with in the past, so I can guarantee that my opinion will be ignored and I’ll be forced to produce some crap that will make me wince. Ugh.
So, I’ve decided to think about other things. Like why I’m embarrassed by my agency. Allow me to explain.
Recently, the staff was asked to select our top 10 favorite Super Bowl commercials. This was for a piece that was going into the local newspaper… my agency, along with three others, would list our favorites, and why we choose them. Here’s how our list turned out:
- “Monkey Party” (Careerbuilder.com)
- “Mean Joe Greene” (Coca-Cola)
- “Whassup” (Budweiser)
- “Frogs” (Budweiser)
- “Caveman Stick” (FedEx)
- “1984” (Apple Computer)
- “Terry Tate, Office Linebacker” (Reebok)
- “Showdown” (McDonalds)
- “Monkey Dance” (E*Trade)
- “Instant Reply” (Budweiser)
Now, if you’re not in advertising, you may not get the horrific mistake that’s been made in the list above. But, to my great embarrassment, none of the other agencies in the article did. The famous Apple Computer spot, “1984” is listed as #6. It didn’t even make the top five! All of the other agencies listed it as #1, as they should. What follows might be boring to anyone not working in the advertising industry, so feel free to move on to donkey porn or whatever.
I’ve been giving a lot of thought lately to why “1984” is such a great spot. The greatest spot, actually. I’ve come to the conclusion that it was an amazing synchronicity of public consciousness, fortunate timing and, if I may, high art.
First, if you haven’t seen the commercial in a while, take a look again:
Let’s start with why I think this spot elevates the common commercial into “high art.”
Like it or don’t, you have to agree that “1984” is extremely well put-together. The production values are high, the acting well done, the sound design top-notch… it’s just a beautiful commercial to watch (in a horrific, Orwellian-future kind of way, of course). And that’s not a big surprise, really, because the spot was directed by Ridley Scott (Blade Runner, Thelma & Louise, Gladiator, Black Hawk Down, Kingdom of Heaven, et. al.). Now, you probably don’t usually think about who directed a commercial--I don’t, and I work in the business--and generally there’s no reason to. But in this case, having an amazing director really helped transform this commercial from a neat concept into a living, breathing world that felt real. It’s like watching a 60-second movie, not another commercial trying to sell you something.
“1984” is what we in the industry would call “high concept.” Meaning that it breaks a lot of the rules of advertising. It doesn’t show the product for one; or anyone interacting with the product. It doesn’t present a real reason to rush out and buy the product; matter of fact, it doesn’t list any reason to buy the product--just a vague, “throw-off-the-chains-of-oppression” sort of message. It’s got to be a pretty good commercial to get you excited about the product while not even mentioning any reason why you should.
But, as well-produced as this spot is, it would fall to pieces without the second element of it’s success: “fortunate timing.”
If Apple introduces its new line of computers in 1982, this spot doesn’t work. If they roll them out in 1986, it doesn’t work. It only works in 1984, when George Orwell’s novel “Nineteen Eighty-Four” is constantly in the media and is being talked about by everyone, everywhere. This creates a spike in what I think is the #1 element that made this spot so amazing and resonate: “public consciousness.”
Starting around 1982 people started to remember the novel. Maybe they read it in high school or college. But as the fateful year got closer, the media glommed on to it and would not let it go. It seemed like every day there was something in the newspaper or on TV saying, “Will 1984 be like Nineteen Eighty-Four?” or “Are we coming closer to Orwell’s vision of 1984?” People who had never heard of George Orwell or his work were talking about the novel like they were literary scholars. Everyone knew the plot, and could talk about “Big Brother,” “Winston Smith,” the “Thought Police” and “doublethink” at length. The emphasis on Nineteen Eighty-Four only intensified as the year actually arrived: there was a movie starring John Hurt, an album by the Eurythmics--1984 (for the love of Big Brother)--countless magazine articles, etcetera, etcetera. My point is that Nineteen Eighty-Four was everywhere.
So when this TV commercial finally aired, people had been so inundated with Nineteen Eighty-Four that they instantly got it. There was no reason to waste a single second on explaining the concept. No-one said, “who’s that big guy on the screen?” or “why are all those people acting like zombies?” Instead, they said “hey! That’s Big Brother” and “that chick better toe the line or the Thought Police will come take her away.”
(Of course, part of the mystique of this spot is that it only ran once. Here's a little bit of trivia that I never knew before: "1984" was scheduled to run three times during that Super Bowl. But, when the board of directors saw it, they hated it and demanded that the spot be pulled altogether. However, Apple could only re-sell two of the three time-slots they bought, so they were forced to air the commercial. Now, that sounds a little bit like BS myth-making to me, but if it is true, then the world's greatest TV commercial damn near never made it to air.)
The real beauty of the spot is that everyone got it. It allowed the dumbest of the dumb to momentarily feel smart because they understood what in any other year would have been a rather esoteric commercial… for 60 glorious seconds, they were as smart as their high school English teachers.
But more than that, the spot had something to appeal to everyone who saw it. Clever marketing guys appreciated the “high concept” approach; academics enjoyed the renewed interest it created in a great work of literature; movie fans got off on the cinematography; hell, even the most brain-dead guy could appreciate the slo-mo boob-bounce of the woman in the orange shorts.
And, of course, Apple computer fans loved it because it was Apple giving the finger to IBM. Because that’s clearly who “Big Brother” is in the spot, the oppressive computer overlord who little upstart Apple was going to take down (don’t believe me? Take a look at this video of Steve Jobs introducing the spot for the first time at a Fall, 1983 sales meeting).
So, given the preponderous amount of evidence, why would my agency not vote for "1984"? I was stumped (as well as shocked and disgusted) until I really started to look around… the actual creative staff here (that is, the actual writers, designers and creative directors) is a pretty small percentage of the entire staff. We’re greatly overshadowed by the number of account executives, account assistants, media planners, media buyers, etc. And, by and large, we’re a really young (in age of staff) agency. So, I guess if you weren’t even BORN in 1984, the relevance of the "1984" spot might be a little lost on you. And when you grew up watching TV shows and movies with fantastic special effects, maybe the cinematography isn't so exciting. And when you’ve never known a world where Macs aren’t the hot and snazzy machines they are today, maybe the introduction of “Macintosh” isn’t so earth-shaking any more.
Or maybe you just think monkeys are funny.