People in the advertising industry still talk about a commercial for Apple Computers that aired once — and never again — during the 1984 Super Bowl. Even if you weren’t alive then, you know it: Bald, colorless drones march in and sit listening to a projected image of Big Brother addressing them from a huge screen. An athletic young woman chased by uniformed guards runs in carrying a large hammer. She hurls it, and the projected image explodes in a blaze of light. “On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh,” the ad concludes. “And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like 1984.“
Have you seen the new ads for Kaplan University? They may not be of the artistic calibre of “1984,” which was directed by Blade Runner director Ridley Scott, but they certainly stop you in your tracks. A professor stands before his students in a college lecture hall and apologizes. “The system has failed you. I have failed you,” he intones. “I have failed to help you share your talent with the world, and the world needs talent more than ever. Yet it’s being wasted by an educational system steeped in tradition and old ideas.” He continues to speak, but now we’re watching his moving image on laptops and iPods. He is speaking to students who are seated at a kitchen table, on a living room couch and a rooftop. “It’s time to use technology to rewrite the rules of education,” the professor says. Like the 1984 ad, it’s not until the very last second that you find out the spot is for Kaplan.
Kaplan University's "Desks" TV Ad
A second ad, called “Desks,” consists of a series of images of old-fashioned school desks, either alone or arrayed in visually arresting settings – on a beach, lined up on a subway platform, on the lanes of a bowling alley, on city streets, and winding their way up a mountain trail. ”Where is it written that the old way is the right way? Where is it written that a traditional education is the only way to get an education? Where is it written that classes only take place in a classroom?” an unseen narrator asks. ”That’s just the thing. It isn’t written anywhere.”
Whether these ads are successful or not for Kaplan may be beside the point. What makes them interesting and compelling is what they say about education at large. They challenge you to look at something familiar with fresh eyes: Where does it say classes have to take place in a classroom? Why can’t college come to me? What’s the point of parking in a lecture hall for hours on end? This may be familiar stuff for educators, but for consumers conditioned to having every itch scratched on demand, I suspect the message behind the ads will seem simple, compelling and new. Very new.
Are we seeing online education’s 1984? It’s all but impossible to see watershed moments as they happen, but it’s sure easy with the hindsight of 25 years: Trivia fans will be interested to learn the Apple spot was not the only commercial for computers to run during the 1984 Super Bowl. Bill Bixby pitched RadioShack personal computers in one; Alan Alda hawked Atari computers in the other.