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John Sculley Made Apple's '1984' Ad, and He Still Thinks It Rules

Steve Jobs (left), chairman of Apple Computer, and John Sculley, Apple's president, with the Macintosh personal computer on Jan. 16, 1984

Photograph by Marilyn K. Yee/New York Times Co. via Getty Images

Steve Jobs (left), chairman of Apple Computer, and John Sculley, Apple's president, with the Macintosh personal computer on Jan. 16, 1984

John Sculley blames Businessweek, in part, for prompting Apple (AAPL) to run its now infamous “1984″ Super Bowl ad. The magazine’s October 1983 cover, which declared IBM the winner of the personal-computer revolution, sparked a reaction at the struggling startup that co-founder Steve Jobs and his board had asked Sculley to lead.

“We were pretty bummed by that,” Sculley told an audience yesterday during a panel discussion in New York to mark the ad’s 30th anniversary. So when Apple was ready to launch its user-friendly Macintosh computer, the primary villain took the form of Big Blue. “We just wanted to get out to the biggest audience,” he recalled. “Steve loved it being about emotion and experience—that the Mac would change the world.”

Sculley noted that the ad, which cost $900,000 to make, ended up generating what amounted to $45 million of free advertising at the time by being repeatedly aired in the media. That no doubt helped Apple sell 72,000 units in the Macintosh’s first 100 days, 44 percent more than its target and as much as its production line could reportedly handle.

What’s remarkable is how rare that breakthrough moment proved to be. While the Super Bowl remains the year’s main event for fans of advertising and football alike, Sculley and his fellow panelists agreed few of the pitches actually work. “We know that the cat pissing on your shoes is pretty funny and might even get millions of hits,” said Young & Rubicam (WPPGY) Chief Executive Officer David Sable. “But that doesn’t move product or make people remember your brand.”

Indeed, with Fox (FOXA) charging $4 million for each 30-second advertising slot during Sunday’s broadcast, some measures of effectiveness seem to suggest it may not be money well spent. Yet the ripple effect is now felt far beyond TV. When it comes to making an impact in social media, Twitter (TWTR) is the hands-down winner as a second screen during the game, according to AddThis Chairman Hooman Radfar: “They’ve cemented that in a way Facebook never could.”

And then there are those whose marketing is directly tied to football. As owner of the New England Patriots, Kraft Sports Group’s marketing chief Jessica Gelman is trying to leverage enthusiasm for the team. “We have a 60,000-person wait list” for season tickets, Gelman explained. That means finding ways to “acquire those fans and start watching their behavior” to forge a relationship that extends beyond the games and a winning season. “It’s unbelievable what Seattle has done with the 12th Man,” she said. “That’s what we’re trying to do.”

For everyone else, the holy grail remains topping that iconic “1984″ Apple ad—and Sculley believes one contender is the company that created it. “Apple still sets the highest bar in advertising,” he said. What began as an appeal to rebels has morphed into making members of the family feel special.

“We’ve always enjoyed selling to the people who love us,” said Sculley. “As hardware commoditizes, the user experience is what sets you apart.”

That, in his view, trumps the power of a single ad. As he puts it: “Companies like Samsung spend more on advertising [than Apple]. Lenovo has done a remarkable job of creating a global brand and will figure out how to make Motorola work. … The message from Apple is, ‘We know who you are.’”

Brady is a senior editor for Bloomberg Businessweek in New York.

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