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The incredible making of ‘Hal’, one of the best ads of the Jobs era

“I love it” . Steve Jobs gave the go-ahead – with great enthusiasm – to the idea of the ad. The first hurdle of ‘Hal’, one of the commercials that was broadcast during the Super Bowl, had been overcome. However, this would only be the beginning of a whole series of avatars that today the creative director of the agency that created it, has made public.

Ken Segal has described in great detail in a blog entry how the creative process of the famous ad was: from the conception of the idea, to its final broadcast. And all this under the guidance of Steve Jobs…

The dreaded Year 2000 and the Y2K effect

The incredible making of ‘Hal’, one of the best ads of the Jobs era
The incredible making of ‘Hal’, one of the best ads of the Jobs era

The first thing to do is to know the context, and for two reasons. As you may remember, Apple had a bittersweet taste when it came to the ads broadcasted during the Super Bowl (the high point in audience in the United States): it swept away ‘1984’, an ad that many describe as the best in the history of advertising, but it bit the dust mercilessly with ‘Lemmings’, an ad that nobody understood. Segal’s agency thus inherited the ‘hot potato’ of turning around Apple’s notorious failure in advertising.

On the other hand, the announcement ‘Hal’ was forged in 1998, at the gates of the year 2000 and its dreaded Y2K effect , by which, most of the computers were approaching the collapse by not being able to solve that date. This was not the case with Macs, whose deadline on the system clock was 29.940 (literally), and this was precisely the reason that Segal took advantage of to propose to Hal, an assistant who had overcome the Rubicon of the year 2000 and who, as you well know, starred in the epic film ‘2001, a space odyssey’.

  • “Maybe we should make an announcement about this”

That was the phrase Jobs used in one of the conversations with Segal in which the dreaded ‘Y2K’ occurred. And they did.

Hal’s substitute voice that Steve almost rejected

Segal explains how after Apple’s co-founder’s initial yes, his agency put the pedal to the metal to get Hal back on track. And it wasn’t easy . The rights to the film were shared by MGM and Stanley Kubrick, so the chances of a ‘no’ vote that would end everything were greater. However, the beginning, on this side, was a resounding success: both Kubrick and MGM accepted without hesitation the idea of using Hal in a commercial.

But his voice – Hal’s – was missing. Finding the actor -Douglas Rain- who gave life to the famous assistant was fundamental, but nevertheless this Canadian performer refused in roundabout to give life to Hal again. What to do? A lot of casting until we found a very similar voice that surpassed the filters. To make things even more difficult, Rain was Canadian and in her voiceovers there was a very subtle, but existing, accent.

The moment of truth has arrived: the final test before Jobs. After the viewing, the leader’s visual acuity and passion for detail was evident:

  • “It doesn’t look like Hal, does it?” he said.


Panic in the room, but Segal kept a silver bullet: explain the issue of the accent . This detail no doubt pleased Jobs who gave the green light to the spot and the rest is history. Did ‘Hal’ win? Here again, opinions are divided: the audience buried him in blushes in the Super Bowl ranking, but critics called it “the smartest commercial” in the history of the Super Bowl. However, the spot passed the toughest test by far: Steve Jobs was delighted with the result.


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