Live-blogging an Apple Lisa commercial from 1983

Wait, is that who I think it is? Nah, it couldn't be. Oh wow, it totally is.

kevin costner lisa commercial apple

Even outside the Apple community, Apple’s “1984” ad is both famous and iconic—despite being shown nationwide only once, during the third quarter of Super Bowl XVIII. But on the CD-ROMs that came with my Twentieth Anniversary Macintosh, I found an ad called “1983,” and it’s quite something. So in the spirit of the Super Bowl, let’s do a play-by-play.

00:00 Geez, this thing is tiny. I’d forgotten how physically tiny movies used to be. At 320×240, it looks utterly comical on my 5K iMac.

00:01 Okay, what do we have here? Dude on a bike. At sunset. Or sunrise. Dusk, anyway. Crepuscular. Great word!

00:02 Is that piano supposed to sound awful? Like, did they spend ages in studio and in software to achieve that distinctive “box of nails resting on the strings” effect, or is that just an artefact of the recording and encoding?

00:03 An edit! Exciting! I mean, sure it’s just a cross-dissolve to a slightly zoomed in version of the same scene, but still.

00:04 Wait! A dog! Hi, pup!

00:11 All ad voiceovers used to sound like this, didn’t they?

00:14 Hey, mop guy! You wanna actually dip that mop in some water, bud. Or maybe this is some special polishing maneuver? Nah, there’s definitely a mop bucket there. Bloody amateur. No, wait, he’s an actor, isn’t he, not a cleaner. So it’s the director who’s an amateur. Anyway, amateurism of some sort is happening here.

00:20 Dog again! This dog has more personality than the humans, and is acting everyone else off the screen. I shall call him Rufus, for no particular reason.

00:21 Switch the lights on, dude. You might get away with that in a different decade, but surely you can’t see anything at dusk with all that black ash furniture.

00:30 A Lisa!

00:32 That’s not how you use a mouse! I wonder if whoever was on set literally didn’t know how a mouse was operated—it was the first time Apple had included one, and was one of the first commercial mice in the broader market—or if they just thought that nobody watching the ad would be able to understand or even see what it was if it was covered by a hand.

02

Nice computer, Kev!

00:34 “At Apple, we understand that…” Wait, hang on, is that dude…?

00:36 Oh Rufus, you big doofus. Look at those pawsies! Apple appears to have learned the trick of using cute animals in ads for unrelated products. See also: the Andrex puppies, which I always think must seem peculiar outside the UK.

00:39 Nope, still not how you use a mouse. Anyway, I was saying, is that…?

00:42 Yes! It’s only Kevin Costner! And something that is either a pencil sharpener or a medium format camera on the desk in front of him but I can’t tell because of this stupid QVGA resolution.

00:45 Oh dear, whatever Kev has seen on the screen—and again, I can’t tell what it is _because of this stupid QVGA resolution_—seems to have caused him a moment of reflection and pause.

00:46 Things happen on screen. I can’t be any more specific than that.

00:47 But man, Kev looks pissed. I assume bad things happened on screen?

00:56 Whoa, whoa, whoa; now Kev seems happy, and he’s all “I’ll be home for breakfast”. (Ah! So it was dawn! Or maybe he’s been tom-catting around town all night and he’s only now deigning to go back to his poor girlfriend who’s been up all night worrying about him.) So are we to assume that actually the things that happened on screen were good things? Maybe the moment of reflection and pause was for him to pick the yacht he’d sail to St. Croix on with his ex-hooker girlfriend with the money he just made trading on frozen concentrated orange jui… wait, that’s Trading Places, isn’t it.

trading places

(Kevin Costner wasn't in that movie.) 

Or maybe he’s just lost everything but we’re witnessing the beginning of an elaborate charade where he tries to convince his girlfriend (and himself!) that everything’s OK while racking up hundreds of thousands of dollars of credit card debt to maintain his lifestyle. This ad poses more questions than answers, not least, where can I adopt a dog like Rufus? And who can help me develop that credit-card-debt movie?

01:00 Now that’s something that’s missing from all of today’s videos; a post-roll sting telling you what compression algorithm was used in encoding it.

So, what have we learned? Well, I’ve learned that I want to own a dog and call it Rufus. But other than that, we’ve also learned why “1984,” not “1983,” is the iconic Apple ad.

In a sense, both were trying to do the same thing: communicate that this new personal desktop computing paradigm which put a GUI and mouse between the user and the complexity within marked a major inflexion point in history. But the messaging in “1984” is so much clearer, and the very unusualness of the story and the staging and direction clearly signalled on a meta level that something big and different and important was happening here. “1983” feels to me like any other eighties ad for Saab or Gillette or Old Spice: smooth, suave, and that particular mix of story and a-bit-too-clever-for-its-own-good copywriting, all wrapped up in warm, dark, smeary colors.

“1984” was as bold and innovative as the Macintosh it advertised. The Lisa deserved better than “1983.”

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