Six Milestone Computing Ads

In 1923, Ned Jordan created an advertisement that changed the way cars were sold. Jordan’s company sold a sporty roadster called the Playboy. “Somewhere west of Laramie there’s a bronco-busting, steer-roping girl who knows what I’m talking about,” the ad began. “She can tell what a sassy pony that’s a cross between greased lightning and the place where it hits, can do with eleven hundred pounds of steel and action when he’s going high, wide and handsome. The truth is — the Playboy was built for her.”

No mention was made of horsepower, type of engine, or other technical details. Jordan’s ad was a pure emotional sell, and it set the tone for automotive advertising to this day.

Microcomputer advertising has its defining moments, too, although none as influential as Jordan’s “Somewhere west of Laramie” ad. What follows is my list of the six most important moments in microcomputer advertising (in chronological order).

1. Sphere 1: Only a true electronics hobbyist would bother to read the earliest microcomputer ads. They used small type that provided technical information in excruciating detail. Sphere was one of the first companies that tried to expand the market beyond the hobbyists. Its ads in the fall of 1975 emphasized the competitive advantages that the Sphere 1 would provide a business or professional. The ads were still text-based and crude by today’s standards, but they signaled the beginning of the marketing of computers to the mass market.

2. MITS Altair 8800: Within a few months of the Sphere ads, MITS ran a series of ads that relied more on images than text. One had a photo of a billiards hall with a pool shark leaning on on an Altair. The only text on the page read, “The MITS Altair 8800 (It’s showing up in some of the most unusual places.) Another showed a photo of Napoleon, and read, “If Napoleon had owned an Altair, things might have turned out differently.” These ads were more professionally produced and made a more emotional appeal than the Sphere ads. Again, the bar was raised for microcomputer advertising.

3. Apple II: In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Apple realized that it first had to sell the public on the concept of owning a microcomputer. Ads that ran in the summer of 1977 began “You’ve just run out of excuses for not owning a personal computer.” Later ads would feature scientists, businesspeople (including Bill Gates), historical figures, and regular folks extolling the virtues of owning a personal computer. Tandy (Radio Shack) and Commodore took a similar approach, but Apple’s ads were by far more effective and professional.

4. Osborne 1:  Osborne also had a new concept to sell—a ready-to-use computer with bundled software in a portable system. Its early ads in 1981 took an “it’s about time” approach, claiming that this was the computer that businesses had been waiting for.  and played directplayed on the insecurities of businesspeople and professionals. Later ads showed two businessment, one with a briefcase and the other with an Osborne. The copy began, “The guy on the left doesn’t stand a chance.” The message: Get an Osborne before your competition does.

5. IBM PC: The message of the earliest IBM PC ads was basically: “We’re IBM. Buy our computer.” The more influential campaign began when IBM started using Charlie Chaplin as its icon for the PC. This provided a humanizing effect, taking the edge off the intimidating aspects of owning a computer and softening IBM’s image as a big, uncaring corporate giant. This was key for IBM to capture the small business market.

6. Macintosh: Apple’s famous “1984” TV commercial, aired during halftime at the 1984 Super Bowl, is one of the most talked about ads of all time. The ad immediately set the Mac apart from the IBM PC and its many clones and helped to establish a strong emotional bond among the user base that remains to this day. However, not many companies copied Apple’s approach, because by 1984 the microcomputer market was well on its way to becoming commoditized. With few exceptions, computer companies were focused on promoting their systems as better, cheaper, faster PCs.

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One comment

  1. Nice to hear something being said about the Sphere 1 ! I just recently learned about that computer, and discovered that it was not the SOL computer that started the integrated Keyboard design paradigm, but the Sphere 1?

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