The Best Super Bowl Commercial Ever

Apple's "1984" Super Bowl commercial ran only once, but it remains in a class by itself.

Apple Ad

Once again this year, the Super Bowl is bringing anticipation  not only for the game itself but also, in what has become what can only be described as something that Don Draper could only have dreamed about, the commercials that will be run during breaks in the game. According to reports, thirty seconds of commercial time during the game this year will cost an advertiser upwards of $4,000,000, although there are apparently exceptions to that rule for advertisers who but multiple spots during the game. That makes this yet another year in which the cost of running an ad has increased over what it cost the previous year. Given the fact that we’re talking about an event that will likely once again break all time viewership ratings, and the fact that the fracturing of the media world into multiple cable networks and online streaming viewing opportunities, it’s not surprising that networks like Fox, along with the NFL, would seek to capitalize on the eagerness of advertisers to get as many eyeballs as possible or that advertisers would eagerly put the money on the table.

Perhaps the most interesting part of all of this is the extent to which the commercials themselves have become part of the shared cultural experience of Super Bowl Sunday. In addition to recapping the game, tomorrow morning’s coverage on shows like Today and Good Morning America, along with the morning shows on the three cable news networks, will once again focus on the commercials and, in many cases, play video of those commercials either in whole or in part, thus giving advertisers even more bang for their buck. In recent years, advertisers have gotten into the game even further by utilizing websites such as YouTube to re;ease preview versions of the commercials they’ll be running during the game, or indeed the entire commercial itself as Budweiser did several days ago with its “Puppy and Clydesdale” commercial.

Notwithstanding all the money and all the talk, though, Michael Hiltzik at The Los Angeles Times contends that a commercial that ran thirty years ago during Super Bowl XVIII remains the best Super Bowl commercial ever:

Of course it’s Apple’s “1984” ad for the original Macintosh computer.

The ad ran in its full 60-second length only once on national television–during the third quarter of Super Bowl 18, on Jan. 22, 1984. (It was shown a month earlier on a TV station in Twin Falls, Idaho, to preserve its eligibility for advertising awards, and subsequently with previews in some movie theaters.)

Directed by Ridley Scott, who already had “Alien” and “Blade Runner” under his belt, this is the ad that created the Super Bowl’s annual commercial frenzy that today bores so many of us silly. For 30 years, ad agencies and their clients have been trying to top it, but no one has come close. Instead we’ve gotten three decades of (let’s face it) lame disappointments–funny ads, emotional ads, sexy ads, animated and live-action ads, glossily professional and do-it-yourself ads. Yawn.

Judging TV commercials by their artistic content is often an exercise in condescension, but there’s no denying that Ridley Scott’s product is a marvel of concise storytelling (and marketing). That the ad ran in 1984 was happenstance, but Apple’s ad agency, Chiat/Day, certainly made the most of the confluence with Orwell’s “1984.” The ad featured gray-garbed drones marching in step to a Big Brother’s Stalinist harangue, interrupted by a lithe tank-topped blond chased by storm troopers. Just before fade-out comes the pitch: “On January 24, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like ‘1984.’”

It’s hard to think of a television commercial whose history is so thoroughly documented as “1984.” A chronicling by veteran Apple historian Owen Linzmeyer can be found here. The hardest part to cast, the rebellious blond, went to a British discus thrower named Anya Major because she could spin around to launch her liberating mallet at the video image of Big Brother without getting dizzy.

Hiltzik goes on to note that the ad almost didn’t run.  While Apple founder Steve Jobs loved the concept, CEO John Scully and much of the Board of Directors did not. This was, you’ll recall, the point in Apple’s tumultuous early history when Jobs was on his way to being forced out the door of the company he had co-founded with Steve Wozniak (who even at that point had largely removed himself from day-to-day operations at the company), only to return triumphantly a decade later and, after some fits and starts, move the company into the 21st century company we know today. In the end, Apple’s marketing executives decided to go forward with the ad, and the rest his history.

Is Hiltzik right that this is best Super Bowl commercial in history? Well, for one thing it’s kind of hard to say otherwise when you’re talking about something that was directed by someone who has been nominated for, and won, the most prestigious awards in filmmaking and is the man behind such mega-hits as Alien, Blade Runner, and Gladiator. It’s also hard to think of any single commercial that people still talk about thirty years after it aired, although the Lyndon Johnson “Daisy” ad, which turns fifty years old this year, may be one exception to that rule. When it comes to Super Bowl commercials, though, the Apple “1984” ad remains iconic and, indeed, seems to have become part of the culture itself.

So, yes, I’ll have to agree with Hiltzik on this one. Apple and Ridley Scott together created what remains the best Super Bowl commercial ever.

FILED UNDER: Economics and Business, Popular Culture, Sports, , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. C. Clavin says:

    Bill O’Reilly proves to the nation that Fox is a partisan mouthpiece driven by conspiracy theories.

  2. Kari Q says:

    Kevin Drum argues that the ad “didn’t work” and that the board of directors was right to hate it.

    it may have appealed to creative, youthful individuals, but it cost the equivalent of $5,000 in today’s dollars. Creative, youthful individuals couldn’t afford to buy the damn thing—and the people who could afford it weren’t much interested after being pointedly ridiculed as drones and dullards.

    I think he’s wrong, myself. The identity that the ad created for Apple’s Mac computers worked exactly the way Jobs wanted it to. Unfortunately, the board that forced Jobs out wanted to go in a different direction. Jobs was aiming for a niche market – turning Apple into a luxury brand as much as a technology company. The new board wanted to be IBM. They had a Porsche and they were trying to turn it into a station wagon.

    But the ad was great.

  3. Jeremy R says:

    Here’s their “lemmings” ad from the following year’s Superbowl:

    It has a very similar message. Both always make me think of this classic Penny Arcade strip:

  4. My favorite Super Bowl ad ever is this one:

  5. al-Ameda says:

    How important was that ad?

    That “1984” ad is solely responsible for the fact a few million non-football fans actually watch the Super Bowl for the ads.

  6. Gromitt Gunn says:

    My favorite is still Herding Cats.

  7. michael reynolds says:

    Did Bob Dylan just do a Chrysler ad? Did I actually see that? Dylan?

  8. ernieyball says:

    I have not been able to see many Superbowls. The one I remember the most was the Bears beating down the Patriots.
    I do remember exactly where I was when I saw the 1984 Apple ad. I bought my first Mac 20 years later. So the ad must have worked on me.
    Before there was a Superbowl there was this commercial…

  9. ernieyball says:

    Oh no she didn’t! (Oh yes she did!)

    Hillary Clinton improbably sends the best Super Bowl tweet!

  10. C. Clavin says:

    @michael reynolds:
    The funny thing about that ad … Is that Chrysler is owned by Fiat…it ain’t American strictly speaking.

  11. Barry says:

    @Kari Q: “Kevin Drum argues that the ad “didn’t work” and that the board of directors was right to hate it. ”

    Seconding this. Apple spent years barely alive.

  12. Matt says:

    I find the ad hilarious as Apple has become what it supposedly is railing against in that ad. An all powerful authoritarian company that limits what you can do with their product while demanding absolute obedience..

    Okay a little overstated but with their completely closed system which doesn’t interface well with others (unless apple allows it) or allow for tinkering it’s not that big of an overstatement.

  13. Tyrell says:

    What is going on with these ads ? We are seeing commercials for commercials. The Super Bowl game itself is becoming more of an after thought and a side show. Why are these ads so important? There may be something else going on here. Advertising is a form of brainwashing . What we are seeing now goes beyond that. When I hear more talk about the commercials then the game itself, something is wrong.
    I don’t watch those commercials. Here is what I do when they come on.
    Check other scores (college basketball, NHL). Read a book ( “Lincoln Conspiracy” ). Make popcorn. Talk on cb. Vacuum.

  14. Pinky says:


    When I hear more talk about the commercials then the game itself, something is wrong.

    Pizza delivery companies report that orders decline during the ads. People are more likely to hit the phone during the game than during the ads.

  15. Tyrell says:

    Bizarre ! There is a case study in psychology if there ever was.