Steve Jobs’s PR Guru: ‘1984’ More Successful than the Mac

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Apple’s 1984 commercial was more successful than the Mac it was supposed to advertise, according to Steve Jobs’s public relations guru Regis McKenna. In an interview with advertising magazine Advertising Age (or Adage), Mr. McKenna spoke about his relationship with Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson’s biography Steve Jobs, the role of advertising, and the practical effect of Apple’s seminal commercial, 1984.

Regis McKenna with Steve Jobs

Regis McKenna with Steve Jobs in the 1980s
Photo Published under Creative Commons

Mr. McKenna was a local Silicon Valley public relations consultant tapped by a young Steve Jobs to help Apple in its early years. The two maintained a relationship through Steve Jobs’s career, Mr. McKenna is known to have played a role in many key advertising and PR moments in Apple’s history.

Adage asked Mr. McKenna, who retired in 2000, about his thoughts on marketing startups. He said that one of the things he learned in the 1970s is that, “the ads won all the awards, but the company went bankrupt.”

“In a way,” he said, “that’s what happened with the 1984 ad. Apple went into 10 years of decline after that. It didn’t have anything to do with the attention, because the ad still gets attention. It had to do with the wrong product.”

When asked of he thought that meant that 1984 is overrated, he answered that, “The ad was more successful than the Mac itself.”

Which is true. The Mac did not live up to its early promise, even while the 1984 commercial is still being copied today.

“Apple’s margins went negative in 1986,” Mr. McKenna argued. “That conflict led to Steve’s ouster from Apple. The ad had some negative effect on corporate buyers, who were flocking to IBM. They didn’t like seeing themselves as mindless [followers].”

On the other hand, he said that Apple wasn’t ready to tackle the corporate market, suggesting that the negative effect he described might have resulted in a wash. He also believes that Chiat|Day, the ad agency that created the commercial, “set the creative bar in many ways. The ad set an attitude of rebellion against the status quo, and it probably continues to serve Apple today.”

Mr. McKenna also acknowledged that he advised Steve Jobs to treat the iPhone 4 antenna controversy as if it wasn’t a real problem, a course that Mr. Jobs and Apple followed.

“I thought it was a media-cycle issue and that they should address it with the data they had and be confident about the outcome rather than be apologetic,” he told the magazine. “The issue vanished within probably 10 days.”

Other tidbits from the interview include his opinion that Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs was unfair to the tech icon.

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