The history of the personal computer in TV commercials
The earliest "home computers required skills far beyond what today's most hands-on computer enthusiasts need to master. The earliest promise of computing at home came from an obscure company called MITS, in the form of the Altair. A DIY, soldering iron and lots of patience required, read output off the LEDs on the front panel, hope you took computer science classes kind of hobby machine, we owe the Altair one major thing; Microsoft. Founded around the BASIC language interpreter Bill Gates and Paul Allen wrote for the fledgling machine, "Micro-Soft" wouldn't be the company we know today without the Altair 8800. In 1977 MITS started selling the Altair as a pre-assembled computer, removing the giant barrier to entry that was assembling the beast from scratch in your basement and creating the personal computer market as we know it.
Of course, it wasn't until the 1980s that the personal computer got a real marketing department. Atari, Apple, Commodore and IBM all duked-it-out in 30 second increments during the early 1980s with ads like these.
Atari had the early jump on marketing prowess. With commercials that stoked the imagination and promised a better life for everyone in the family through computing, Atari's flare for romanticising what was often a more frustrating than productive device is legendary. Even Atari's earliest home computer ads have a polish that the competion simply didn't have.
This commercial from 1982 shows exactly the kind of hyperbole that turned me into a computer junkie at the tender age of seven.
Commodore arguably had the better machine and, once you considered the total cost of owning one (printer, storage, software, etc..) probably won the value equasion. Unfortunately the Commodore marketing department seems to have been staffed by a bunch of pencil pushing geeks rather than marketing professionals with an eye towards selling mom and dad the machine that would occupy all your free time.
The closest Commodore ever came to smart marketing was hiring Captain James T. Kirk as a pitchman. Unfortunately, they dropped William Shatner before the real party began. This extremely rare commercial for the Vic-20 emplores you not to waste your money on a game machine from Atari or Intellivision but instead "invest" in the "wonder computer of the 1980s."
Apple came to own the educational market, and the IIe was chock full of expandability and hack factor. It's brother the IIc though was probably the first "pretty" PC. Sleek, white and with an integrated floppy drive, the IIc was most of the power available in the expensive IIe but, in a package mom wouldn't abhor looking at in the living room.
Apple also ushered in the new age of personal computers with one of the most unforgettable television commercials of the 1980s. Apple's 1984 inspired breakthrough ad launched the Macintosh and, though it would be years before the Mac lived up to its real promise, the revolutionary spirit and total marketing prowess of the Apple we know today shows clearly in this TV spot.
Apple tried to sell the expensive Macintosh to business users but, they never really caught hold outside of desktop publishing. It wasn't for lack of trying, as this out of place Apple ad gem shows.
The IBM PC. Dad had one at work and, due to the onslaught of 100% compatible clones the IBM PC became the computer of choice for anyone who wanted to actually do something with their power hungry overgrown graphical calculator. I'll save the discussion of logic (or lack thereof) surrounding the use of a character from the 1920s silent picture era to sell a modern home computer but, this ad clearly shows that IBM's marketing isn't what got the PC we know and love to the top of the pile. Check out the super high-tech EGA graphics, the computer in this commercial would've set you back a small fortune at the time.
The PS/2 marked the death of IBM trying to sell to home PC users. This totally bizarre ad from sometime around 1987 shows that they were stalking a completely different consumer, the business buyer. Who could blame them? Digital Equipment and Compaq were taking a big chunk out of IBM's core business market by this time. This commercial isn't so much a reunion of M*A*S*H stars as it is a begging and pleading mea culpa to the once faithful corporate PC buyer.
Windows changed everything. It was a while before mainstream machines and video cards could catch up to the demands of a real windowing environment but, that didn't stop Microsoft from selling the future, today. I'm guessing there are a few people at Microsoft who really wish this excerpt from a 1987 promotional video sent to computer dealers never saw the light of day. Presented in rap, as was the style of the time.
This Windows pitch shows clearly why Steve Ballmer should never, ever be allowed in front of a camera.
Microsoft spent a fortune to secure "Start Me Up" by the aging Rolling Stones as a means to cleverly turn us on to the concept of the "Start" button. Say what you will but, the first Windows 95 commercials show that Microsoft brought more than a big pile of cash to the kick off, they also brought their "A" game.
Microsoft's marketing muscle has only increased in the ensuing 12 years (ok, 11.5) since the launch of 95. Today's Microsoft funded marketing efforts demonstrate a mature marketing machine which, mostly, hits its target. One of Microsoft's most recent efforts, this very abstract commercial for Zune shows that they can still miss every once in a while. It may be beautiful but, it's far less than effective.