What 1984 means to 2011
“1984”, the television commercial which introduced Apple Macintosh computers to the American public for the first time, would have been killed by focus groups. Charl Thom, MD of FoxP2, slams campaign pre-testing and wonders how many great campaigns have been killed off because of them.
The Super Bowl commercial break. The most coveted and expensive piece of television media real estate on the planet. This is a broadcast that reaches more than 90 million people, and 30 seconds of advertising time will set you back around US $3 million, or R22 million.
This cost all but guarantees that advertisers will go all out to produce the most creative and innovative work possible for their brand. The commercials are highly anticipated by viewers and they are discussed around the office water cooler as much as the game itself. In fact, TiVo, which allows viewers to skip over the commercials, reports that viewers pause and rewind to go back to the commercials they enjoy. The really good ones also spread virally as the black plague did through Europe. Big ideas live everywhere.
More than 600 years after the black plague, Lee Clow and his team at Chiat/Day in Venice Beach conceived “1984”, the television commercial which introduced Apple Macintosh computers to the American public for the first time. The commercial shows Apple Macintosh, represented by a heroine in a white tank top, liberating humans from conformity by throwing a sledgehammer into IBM, represented by a large Big Brother image. The concept borrowed from George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four novel, which described a dystopian future ruled by a televised Big Brother.
The commercial was produced by Ridley Scott and broadcast on January 22, 1984 during the third quarter of Super Bowl XVIII. The rest as they say in the classics, is history. It is now widely considered and acclaimed not only as one of the most successful and memorable commercials ever produced for the Superbowl, but as an all-time classic advertising masterpiece. An updated version of the commercial was rebroadcasted in 2004 where the heroine was modified to wear an Apple iPod, the device that turned around Apple’s fortunes after a difficult period of time for the company, only this time the villain was viewed as Microsoft rather than IBM. Big ideas stand the test of time.
A focus group would have killed this commercial.
In 2007 an experiment was conducted and filmed as the opening to the Hatch Awards show, a Boston creative competition. “Consumers” are shown an animatic of the 1984 masterpiece, but this time in the generally accepted research format of an animatic, which is made up of storyboard renderings. The respondents don’t hold back with their first reactions: “it’s just black and white, dark, a little depressing”, “bizarre”, “modelled after the Nazi rallies”, “it’s the one commercial I’d get up to leave the room for, I didn’t care for it whatsoever”, “I’m a big fan of anything with a chimpanzee in it”.
The research results suggest that Apple do not move forward with the communication without significant changes like using real people, putting the Apple logo at the start and using a dog or a chimpanzee in the commercial. These folks were recruited to give their opinion on a commercial concept, and it is human nature to feel they have to earn their research fee, selection of triangle shaped sandwiches and tin of Coke. Simply saying it’s a terrific idea and moving on will not suffice, but more than this, they are not even given the opportunity to recognise something great. Try comparing the very basic concept for E.T. “boy befriends alien to help him get back home” to viewing the film in its full splendour. General psychology suggests however, that respondents will try to give an opinion to improve things in a staged and unnatural situation like this, however well-intentioned and misguided it may be.
My belief is that there is very little merit in pre-testing a campaign. We cannot expect of consumers to envisage the potential of a creative concept in a state that is not even close to half-baked. In effect, the research experiment demonstrated that we often ask consumers to have the same creative vision and insight as a brilliant creative team, photographer, digital programmer or a director like Ridley Scott. It’s simply not realistic to expect this of them. Most consumers can give us information based on what they see in front of them, often drawing on an existing frame of reference or experience to contextualise it (chimpanzees anyone?), but they cannot be expected to recognise or give us inspiration in most of the current campaign pretest methodologies.
Campaign pretests need to be limited to basic checks that determine consumer understanding of certain ideas, confirm whether they are vehemently offended by other ideas or prefer one basic thought over another. In the words of John Hegarty “I don´t believe in ‘Campaign Pretests’. These researches just show us what people think. A good idea makes people think.” Apple’s 1984 commercial dodged the pretest bullet, I wonder how many others didn’t.
View the Hatch Awards experiment here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=624FxhJlVM0